The Unhappy Warrior

There’s a moment in David Axelrod’s Believer that quietly distills the heights and horrors of President Barack Obama’s first two years in office—an unusually eventful introduction to executive power in Washington, whose legacy is sure to be debated, assessed, and litigated (both figuratively and literally) for years to come.

This tiny epiphany comes just before the midterm elections of 2010—which were to swiftly dispatch the dream of transformational change that longtime Obama confidants such as Axelrod had made the centerpiece of their candidate’s successful 2008 presidential run. Axelrod, then Obama’s senior adviser, had been summoned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who took issue with the rhetoric coming out of the White House. As Axelrod recalls, he believed that, by continuing to emphasize the theme of change in Obama’s speeches, he was “taking aim at excessive partisanship and special-interest power that all Americans, except those in Washington, recognized as obstacles to progress.”

Pelosi demurred. “We can’t run against Washington,” she said. “We are Washington.” Partisanship wasn’t an obstacle to change, she argued. After all, Democratic partisanship had resulted in the rescue of the economy from Wall Street fraud and greed; landmark legislation changing the face of American health care; the resuscitation of the automotive industry; a law requiring employers to give women equal pay for equal work; and a modest attempt at financial reform to prevent too-big-to-fail banks from sending the economy into another Great Depression. On all these fronts, Republican opposition had been virtually absolute. The problem, Pelosi explained to Axelrod, isn’t partisanship per se. The problem is the partisanship of an obstructionist Republican Party.

Pelosi’s complaint wasn’t about Axelrod’s “language of change” so much as the distinctions it obscured, the fundamental assumptions behind each party that are central to understanding the dynamics of power in Washington. Generally speaking, the Democrats are concerned with governance: achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. The Republicans, generally speaking, are not. As Eric Alterman noted in Why We’re Liberals (2008), Republicans’ “philosophical contempt for government and public service frequently spills over into a form of contempt for the very jobs they have pledged themselves to undertake.”

Pelosi’s realist counsel did not go down well with Axelrod, who had, after all, stood the conventional wisdom about Washington power on its head by helping to catapult the nation’s first African American chief executive into office via the direct and confrontational slogan of “Change We Can Believe in.”

Indeed, the conceit of frustrated idealism animates Axelrod’s account of his political coming-of-age in Believer. It is a classic American conversion narrative, in which a hard-bitten newspaperman in one of the nation’s most reliably corrupt urban polities embraces a new vision of political change by allying himself with a genuine, far-seeing advocate of reform. He recounts that, at the beginning of his relationship with Obama, he, like the senator’s legions of idealistic supporters, was drawn in “by hope, the audacious idea that, against the odds, we, the people, could push back against the bitter, atomizing politics of our time and join together as one American community.”

Certainly, Axelrod, like the Obama 2008 electorate, well understood the need for a far-reaching overhaul of business-as-usual governance. He writes,

The country, [Obama] said, was in a perilous place, confronted by big, long-term challenges such as health care, climate change, and frayed alliances in the world. Against this, we were hamstrung by small, divisive politics that made solving big problems virtually impossible. It was a critical moment in the nation’s history. Could he bring something different, something more useful than just fresh and moving rhetoric, to the daunting challenges facing America?”

Believer is a well-written story that will, in its detailed accounts of Obama’s twin, landmark electoral victories, find its most enthusiastic audience among readers doggedly devoted to the Obama creed. By the end, however, it’s unclear whether Axelrod still believes in it himself, though his loyalty to and admiration and respect for the president are beyond doubt. The most salient description of Believer’s overriding tone is weary. Axelrod is just exhausted, and his condition would seem to be compounded by the occupational hazards of being a reformer: investing politics with too much hope for a better world and evincing too little patience for the world as it is. Axelrod writes that the longer the members of Obama’s team transacted business with Pelosi and the rest of official Washington, the more they “came to realize that in this imperfect world, some of the things we’d campaigned against . . . were essential tools with which leaders marshaled votes.”

This was especially the case in the new administration’s encounters with its not-so-loyal ideological opposition. Indeed, even before Obama’s ascent, the Republican Party was rendering governance indistinguishable from partisanship. During the Bush years, Republican consultants launched the K Street Project—a bald effort to institutionalize their power by forcing corporations to appoint Republican lobbyists in exchange for lucrative government contracts. The lobbyists would in turn organize their clients’ interests around the larger goals of the party.

So there’s partisanship and then there’s partisanship. One form serves the interests of party above all; it’s “partisan” in the sense of brooking no opposition to or deviation from orthodoxy. The other, as Pelosi believed, serves the interests of the American people—it’s “partisan” in the sense of advocating the interests of voters who don’t enjoy outsize influence in official Washington. Axelrod, as a keeper of the Obama creed, was reluctant to buy into the force of this distinction. He thought it unwise for Obama to suddenly “become the point man in the partisan wars” after vowing to end gridlock. Yet in the end, the president agreed with Pelosi. “I think Nancy’s right,” Axelrod recalls Obama saying. “Democrats are not the reason things are all gummed up here. We shouldn’t give people the impression that the two parties are equally culpable.”

That’s a compelling admission—and a telling one. Obama won in 2008 by building a grassroots movement against partisanship, but by 2010 he appeared to realize that, by attacking “partisanship,” he was degrading the public’s understanding of his party’s achievements. His greatest strength—the transcendent vision of galvanizing change—had become the Democrats’ greatest liability.

Obama’s chastened outlook circa 2010 is significant for another reason: It suggests he may have believed his own rhetoric. By acknowledging the obvious fact that the parties are not equally culpable for gridlock, the president was tacitly admitting the degree to which he had been captive to his campaign’s language of change.

In Axelrod’s telling, Obama witnessed the fallacy of “presidential omnipotence” even before he assumed power. In 2008, John McCain briefly suspended his campaign during the Wall Street meltdown to call an emergency meeting with Obama, members of Congress, and the Bush administration. During that meeting, Obama saw clearly that his faith that all sides could come together during a crisis for the good of the country—the Obama creed—was dead wrong. Retrospective accounts of that meeting have highlighted one central, and bruising, truth: McCain’s impotence. It was his meeting, yet he had nothing to say when Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson detailed the disaster ahead and the need for Congress to act. It is less often remembered—and, thanks to Axelrod, we are now reminded—that John Boehner, then House minority leader, said his caucus was against the Wall Street bailout. In other words, crisis be damned: Bush was powerless, even with members of his own party. He had no choice but to turn to House Democrats. The moral of the story is that when the alleged omnipotence of the Oval Office meets a partisan power play, that omnipotence loses, badly.

Obama would encounter the same antipathy after taking office and calling for a stimulus package worth nearly $800 billion. Every credible economic authority said the country desperately needed the Keynesian boost of countercyclical government spending to mitigate the housing and jobs crises—and that, if anything, the stimulus package was still too small. But again, crisis was not enough for those philosophically opposed to governance to join hands with the enemy. Boehner called the stimulus an enormous tax-and-spend bill. Mitch McConnell, then Senate minority leader, said his party’s biggest priority wasn’t to take on a productive role in facing down the worst economic crisis in nearly eighty years; it was, rather, to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president.

It’s fair to say that the Obama administration, during those early years, deployed a surplus of “transformational” rhetoric, but it’s unfair to say that the president lacked any taste for transactional politics. True, Obama disliked the smell of horse trading. But he still wanted to strike deals with Republicans, so much so that he allowed them to hijack the narrative of the deliberations over the Affordable Care Act. In retrospect, he would have suffered politically even if he had rammed the measure through a Democratic Congress, but the point remains: He wanted to deal.

However, compromise is impossible in the face of an opposition with no tactical reason to reach one—and the emergence of such an opposition is something new under the American political sun. Even southern segregationists felt obligated to bargain during the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. There is no such sense of obligation in today’s Republican Party. This explains why a president who promised to rise above partisanship has been transformed into a pure Washington partisan.

That’s not a bad thing. As Pelosi explained to Axelrod, there’s partisanship and then there’s partisanship; its value depends mainly on what ends it serves. Axelrod doesn’t come out and say as much in the reality-chastened pages of Believer, but one clear lesson that his former boss has learned is that idealism in the face of obstructionism is no virtue. And given Obama’s recent executive actions, in the wake of the even more punishing setbacks of the 2014 midterms, on the climate and immigration and in his foreign policy regarding Iran and Cuba, this reluctant partisan is serving more than party.

John Stoehr is the managing editor of the Washington Spectator.