The start of Barack Obama’s second term has not exactly built confidence in his leadership for the next three years. The President has fumbled away American leadership on global security with his bizarre flip-flop on Syria over the last month, endured the eruption of several scandals, and keeps pivoting back to the economy with nothing much to say. Poll numbers are plummeting, and even his own party has handed him two major defeats after returning from the summer recess. His most recent speech got ripped for its naked partisanship and bizarre timing, coming right in the middle of breaking news about a mass murder at the Washington Navy Yard.
The Hill reports that Obama has sent up an SOS to his first-term team to rescue him from … well, himself:
A struggling President Obama is calling for help from members of his first-term A-Team, who have left the White House for other jobs.
With his poll numbers falling and his second-term floundering so far, Obama has sought help from the former aides who helped catapult him to the presidency. …
One former aide described Obama’s trusted inner circle from the first term as “the originals,” and speculated that if they were still at the White House they could have helped prevent some of Obama’s second-term blunders, such as the decision Monday to give a fiery speech criticizing Republicans just hours after 12 people were gunned down a few miles away at the Navy Yard.
“I don’t think he would have made that kind of mistake in the first term,” one former administration official said on Tuesday. “Sometimes it feels like there’s a void over there. There are some new, extraordinary folks over there, but it definitely leaves something to be desired.”
Getting the band back together might be more difficult than people imagine. According to a new book by MSNBC.com executive editor Richard Wolffe titled The Message: The Reselling of President Obama about the 2012 campaign, the infighting among “the originals” became almost disabling then, and probably hasn’t improved much in the meantime:
The infighting was especially bad with Axelrod, who hired a lawyer to negotiate his contract with the campaign and sought a percentage of its ad buys.
“Axelrod made it clear that he felt Messina was not up to the job of campaign manager. He liked to compare the relationship between Plouffe and Messina to the two strongmen running the Kremlin. Plouffe was President Vladimir Putin, the man really in charge, while Messina was his henchman and prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev,” Wolffe wrote. “Axe respected Plouffe highly, but he did not believe that Messina was an honest broker. He felt that Plouffe had no sense of the day-to-day business in Chicago, while Messina was desperately overcompensating for his insecurity and lack of control.”
The Daily Beast has more. The book describes how Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, who helped craft and control the message from the start of the 2007 campaign through the first term, got pushed out without any help from Obama:
“The president broke Axe and Robert’s hearts,” said one member of Obama’s inner circle. For those who remained, the departure of Axelrod and Gibbs sent a clear message: they were all dispensable. “He doesn’t need anyone,” said another member of the inner circle. “Axe and Gibbs were effectively fired. He owes everything to Axe. Everything. He’d never have gotten anywhere without him. I’d like to think he knows that and sees him differently. But I’m not sure.” Obama kept a close team of younger male staffers to manage his immediate needs, and that was all he needed. “He needs the guys to play cards and golf, and tell him where he’s going next and why,” said a former aide. “But beyond that, it’s what function you have. And if you can’t fulfill that function anymore, or someone can do it better, you’re gone. That’s hard for those of us who really believe in him. He expects full loyalty. But you need to have your eyes open.”
If Barack Obama—or any of his other senior aides—felt a pang about the departure of Axe and Gibbs, they did not show it. David Plouffe took control of the White House message operation, as well as Axe’s office close to the Oval, and nobody looked back. Jim Messina took Plouffe’s old job in Chicago, and the president tasked him with bringing both Axe and Gibbs back on board in more limited roles. Plouffe and Messina claimed to be just as much of a believer in Obama’s brand of hope and change as Axe and Gibbs. But behind their intensely competitive exteriors, they nurtured intensely competitive interiors. Unlike Axe and Gibbs, they were still on the inside ring of Obama’s circle of confidants.
Gibbs was in some ways the easier of the two heartbreaks, because he failed to put up a fight. He was making huge amounts of money on the speaking circuit—up to $1 million a year—and toying with job offers in the private sector, including one from Facebook. But that wasn’t enough, and the campaign couldn’t—or wouldn’t—give him what he wanted. He was paid $15,000 a month to jump on some calls, and travel out to Chicago once a week in the early stages. But he made no more than a dozen trips to headquarters in 20 months. He had no appetite to jockey for power with those running the communications team in Chicago. And he was excluded from the senior message meetings in the Roosevelt Room in the White House on Sunday nights. “Robert to this day isn’t whole,” said one senior Obama aide. “We paid him to do absolutely nothing. What he wanted was to hang out with Barack Obama, and there was no way he was going to be allowed on the plane. The plane was very disciplined and there was no role for him there.” Between Plouffe and Jen Psaki, Air Force One had no room for Robert Gibbs. “Typical Obama structure: we knew what we wanted and we weren’t going to do something else.”
The struggle began with Axe’s hiring and his contract negotiations. For consultants like Axelrod, election cycles were opportunities to turn candidates into elected officials, and to turn fund-raising dollars into personal wealth. In 2008, none of the consultants knew how big the Obama operation could be. Many of them did not expect Obama to decide to run for president, never mind win the Iowa caucuses and the party’s nomination. None of them dreamed Obama could raise the kind of dollars he did in 2008, when he smashed all fund-raising records and opted out of the public finance system for presidential campaigns. So consultants like Axelrod capped their fees, which are normally a tiny percentage of the total spending on their part of the ad budget—whether TV commercials or direct mail.
Four years later, they were not going to make the same mistake. The reelection was forecast to be a billion-dollar campaign, and they wanted their fair share. Axelrod hired a lawyer to negotiate his deal, which was a combination of a monthly fee and what he called “a very, very small percentage” of the overall TV ad budget. For Axelrod, the fees were only part of the story. After almost two years of campaigning solely for Barack Obama, he had spent two years away from his family, working inside the White House. The personal and financial sacrifices were real. Plouffe had made a fortune on the speaking circuit while Axelrod was struggling to find the message during the Great Recession and the rise of the Tea Party. Everyone else could monetize their 2008 experience except the man most loyal to the president.
Now that Obama has created his own crises in credibility, messaging, and “style points,” suddenly he needs his old aides. But the problem with credibility crises is that they can’t be easily remedied once they erupt; it’s akin to putting a genie back in the bottle, or unringing a bell. It doesn’t help when the President goes on television to tell a nation clearly hostile to the central legislative project of his presidency that they don’t know what they’re talking about, either:
President Obama said Tuesday that Americans were wrong to doubt his signature healthcare reform law, saying concerns over rising costs or worsening health outcomes were not supported by the evidence.
In an interview with Telemundo on Tuesday, the president was asked if “everybody [was] wrong” after polling data indicated that a majority of Americans oppose the law and believe it will raise their healthcare costs.
“Yes,” the president said with a chuckle. “They are.”
Ha, ha! Trust me! Laughing off concerns isn’t going to restore confidence in this presidency, not when most new jobs are only part-time work and employers are coming up with ever more creative ways to dump health insurance. Small wonder they’re already hitting the panic button at the White House.
But hey, we’re talking about getting bands back together and SOSes. Sounds like a job for … ABBA!
Update: Maureen Mackey has more on the power struggles in the White House.