February 3, 2010 8:09 pm

America: A fearsome foursome

At a crucial stage in the Democratic primaries in late 2007, Barack Obama rejuvenated his campaign with a barnstorming speech, in which he ended on a promise of what his victory would produce: “A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.”

Just over a year into his tenure, America’s 44th president governs a bitterly divided nation, a world increasingly hard to manage and an America that seems more disillusioned than ever with Washington’s ways. What went wrong?

Pundits, Democratic lawmakers and opinion pollsters offer a smorgasbord of reasons – from Mr Obama’s decision to devote his first year in office to healthcare reform, to the president’s inability to convince voters he can “feel their [economic] pain”, to the apparent ungovernability of today’s Washington. All may indeed have contributed to the quandary in which Mr Obama finds himself. But those around him have a more specific diagnosis – and one that is striking in its uniformity. The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing, they say.

In dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington – most of them given unattributably in order to protect their access to the Oval Office – each observes that the president draws on the advice of a very tight circle. The inner core consists of just four people – Rahm Emanuel, the pugnacious chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, his senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, his communications chief.

Two, Mr Emanuel and Mr Axelrod, have box-like offices within spitting distance of the Oval Office. The president, who is the first to keep a BlackBerry, rarely holds a meeting, including on national security, without some or all of them present.

With the exception of Mr Emanuel, who was a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, all were an integral part of Mr Obama’s brilliantly managed campaign. Apart from Mr Gibbs, who is from Alabama, all are Chicagoans – like the president. And barring Richard Nixon’s White House, few can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle.

“It is a very tightly knit group,” says a prominent Obama backer who has visited the White House more than 40 times in the past year. “This is a kind of ‘we few’ group ... that achieved the improbable in the most unlikely election victory anyone can remember and, unsurprisingly, their bond is very deep.”

John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, the most influential think-tank in Mr Obama’s Washington, says that while he believes Mr Obama does hear a range of views, including dissenting advice, problems can arise from the narrow composition of the group itself.

Among the broader circle that Mr Obama also consults are the self-effacing Peter Rouse, who was chief of staff to Tom Daschle in his time as Senate majority leader; Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff; the economics team led by Lawrence Summers and including Peter Orszag, budget director; Joe Biden, the vice-president; and Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser. But none is part of the inner circle.

“Clearly this kind of core management approach worked for the election campaign and President Obama has extended it to the White House,” says Mr Podesta, who managed Mr Obama’s widely praised post-election transition. “It is a very tight inner circle and that has its advantages. But I would like to see the president make more use of other people in his administration, particularly his cabinet.”

This White House-centric structure has generated one overriding – and unexpected – failure. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr Emanuel managed the legislative aspect of the healthcare bill quite skilfully, say observers. The weak link was the failure to carry public opinion – not Capitol Hill. But for the setback in Massachusetts, which deprived the Democrats of their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, Mr Obama would by now almost certainly have signed healthcare into law – and with it would have become a historic president.

But the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts wished otherwise. The Democrats lost the seat to a candidate, Scott Brown, who promised voters he would be the “41st [Republican] vote” in the Senate – the one that would tip the balance against healthcare. Subsequent polling bears out the view that a decisive number of Democrats switched their votes with precisely that motivation in mind.

“Historians will puzzle over the fact that Barack Obama, the best communicator of his generation, totally lost control of the narrative in his first year in office and allowed people to view something they had voted for as something they suddenly didn’t want,” says Jim Morone, America’s leading political scientist on healthcare reform. “Communication was the one thing everyone thought Obama would be able to master.”

Whatever issue arises, whether it is a failed terrorist plot in Detroit, the healthcare bill, economic doldrums or the 30,000-troop surge to Afghanistan, the White House instinctively fields Mr Axelrod or Mr Gibbs on television to explain the administration’s position. “Every event is treated like a twist in an election campaign and no one except the inner circle can be trusted to defend the president,” says an exasperated outside adviser.

Perhaps the biggest losers are the cabinet members. Kathleen Sebelius, Mr Obama’s health secretary and formerly governor of Kansas, almost never appears on television and has been largely excluded both from devising and selling the healthcare bill. Others such as Ken Salazar, the interior secretary who is a former senator for Colorado, and Janet Napolitano, head of the Department for Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, have virtually disappeared from view.

Administration insiders say the famously irascible Mr Emanuel treats cabinet principals like minions. “I am not sure the president realises how much he is humiliating some of the big figures he spent so much trouble recruiting into his cabinet,” says the head of a presidential advisory board who visits the Oval Office frequently. “If you want people to trust you, you must first place trust in them.”

In addition to hurling frequent profanities at people within the administration, Mr Emanuel has alienated many of Mr Obama’s closest outside supporters. At a meeting of Democratic groups last August, Mr Emanuel described liberals as “f***ing retards” after one suggested they mobilise resources on healthcare reform.

“We are treated as though we are children,” says the head of a large organisation that raised millions of dollars for Mr Obama’s campaign. “Our advice is never sought. We are only told: ‘This is the message, please get it out.’ I am not sure whether the president fully realises that when the chief of staff speaks, people assume he is speaking for the president.”

The same can be observed in foreign policy. On Mr Obama’s November trip to China, members of the cabinet such as the Nobel prizewinning Stephen Chu, energy secretary, were left cooling their heels while Mr Gibbs, Mr Axelrod and Ms Jarrett were constantly at the president’s side.

The White House complained bitterly about what it saw as unfairly negative media coverage of a trip dubbed Mr Obama’s “G2” visit to China. But, as journalists were keenly aware, none of Mr Obama’s inner circle had any background in China. “We were about 40 vans down in the motorcade and got barely any time with the president,” says a senior official with extensive knowledge of the region. “It was like the Obama campaign was visiting China.”

Then there are the president’s big strategic decisions. Of these, devoting the first year to healthcare is well known and remains a source of heated contention. Less understood is the collateral damage it caused to unrelated initiatives. “The whole Rahm Emanuel approach is that victory begets victory – the success of healthcare would create the momentum for cap-and-trade [on carbon emissions] and then financial sector reform,” says one close ally of Mr Obama. “But what happens if the first in the sequence is defeat?”

Insiders attribute Mr Obama’s waning enthusiasm for the Arab-Israeli peace initiative to a desire to avoid antagonising sceptical lawmakers whose support was needed on healthcare. The steam went out of his Arab-Israeli push in mid-summer, just when the healthcare bill was running into serious difficulties.

The same applies to reforming the legal apparatus in the “war on terror” – not least his pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre within a year of taking office. That promise has been abandoned.

“Rahm said: ‘We’ve got these two Boeing 747s circling that we are trying to bring down to the tarmac [healthcare and the decision on the Afghanistan troop surge] and we can’t risk a flock of f***ing Canadian geese causing them to crash,’ ” says an official who attended an Oval Office strategy meeting. The geese stood for the closure of Guantánamo.

An outside adviser adds: “I don’t understand how the president could launch healthcare reform and an Arab-Israeli peace process – two goals that have eluded US presidents for generations – without having done better scenario planning. Either would be historic. But to launch them at the same time?”

Again, close allies of the president attribute the problem to the campaign-like nucleus around Mr Obama in which all things are possible. “There is this sense after you have won such an amazing victory, when you have proved conventional wisdom wrong again and again, that you can simply do the same thing in government,” says one. “Of course, they are different skills. To be successful, presidents need to separate the stream of advice they get on policy from the stream of advice they get on politics. That still isn’t happening.”

The White House declined to answer questions on whether Mr Obama needed to broaden his circle of advisers. But some supporters say he should find a new chief of staff. Mr Emanuel has hinted that he might not stay in the job very long and is thought to have an eye on running for mayor of Chicago. Others say Mr Obama should bring in fresh blood. They point to Mr Clinton’s decision to recruit David Gergen, a veteran of previous White Houses, when the last Democratic president ran into trouble in 1993. That is credited with helping to steady the Clinton ship, after he too began with an inner circle largely carried over from his campaign.

But Mr Gergen himself disagrees. Now teaching at Harvard and commenting for CNN, Mr Gergen says members of the inner circle meet two key tests. First, they are all talented. Second, Mr Obama trusts them. “These are important attributes,” Mr Gergen says. His biggest doubt is whether Mr Obama sees any problem with the existing set-up.

“There is an old joke,” says Mr Gergen. “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one. But the lightbulb must want to change. I don’t think President Obama wants to make any changes.”

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