A Pen, a Phone, and a Flailing President

The White House's problem might not be strategies and tactics. It might be Obama himself.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 29: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media at the briefing room of the White House October 29, 2010 in Washington, DC. Obama made a statement regarding the suspicious packages that were found on cargo planes from Yemen heading to the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (National Journal)

For months, the White House and its allies mocked critics of Barack Obama's leadership, arguing that no president has "Green Lantern" superhero powers. Now these same people are predicting that Obama can salvage his agenda by waving a magical "pen and phone."

The contradiction illustrates how far partisans will go to defend a flailing presidency, grasping at slogans and insults as a growing majority of Americans tune out. We witnessed a similar drama under President Bush, who set a low bar for public approval that Obama is close to matching.

More than that, Obama's plan to exert executive branch authority, starting with his State of the Union address, further illustrates his unfamiliarity with the levers of political power, the limits of his leadership style, and the vast amount of time and potential squandered by the president so far.

"We need to assure the American people that we can get something done either through Congress or on our own because what they want are answers," White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

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"He is going to look in every way he can with his pen and his phone to try to move the ball forward," Pfeiffer said. "We're putting an extra emphasis on it in 2014."

Pfeiffer was amplifying a front-page story in the Washington Post about a strategy memo he wrote. Details of the Pfeiffer memo were leaked to Post reporter Scott Wilson as part of the White House's public-relations blitz surrounding the State of the Union address on Tuesday. From the story:

Among its conclusions is that Obama, a former state legislator and U.S. senator, too often governed more like a prime minister than a president. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister is elected by lawmakers and thus beholden to them in ways a president is not.

As a result, Washington veterans have been brought into the West Wing to emphasize an executive style of governing that aims to sidestep Congress more often. A central ambition of Obama's presidency — to change the way Washington works — has effectively been discarded as a distraction in a time of hardening partisanship "¦

Wilson's story included at least one damaging insight on Obama:

Even some of Obama's closest advisers acknowledged that he sometimes appeared distant in meetings before the disastrous health-care rollout in the fall.

And his team:

The White House postmortem also concluded that the administration suffered from a lack of focus in a year without an election "¦

The assessment concluded that Obama and his communications team allowed his fifth year to be judged too much by his dealings with Congress, which were poor.

A conservative Republican faction killed his gun-control proposals — joined by some Democratic senators — and eventually shut down the government for 16 days. "We still didn't know enough about the Republicans," said one senior administration official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal assessments.

Didn't know enough? After five years in office? This official, like so many others in the West Wing, apparently is not sufficiently self-aware to realize he confirmed an Obama critique — that the president is too removed and disinterested from the political process to affect it, that he doesn't value congressional relations enough to give them anything more than lip service, and that, for his enormous intellectual gifts, Obama is handicapped by a lack of political curiosity. He chose not to know enough about the Republicans.

The story raises several other questions. First, why did it take this long for the White House to discover the power of executive orders and rule-making? (Republicans are warning of "tyrannical executive orders," ignoring the fact that GOP presidents issue them, too.) For instance, Obama has refused to use the power of clemency in a broad way to correct injustice in crack-cocaine sentencing. He punted to Congress the most important questions about NSA overreach rather than taking executive action. And now we're supposed to be impressed by his pen and phone?

At the same time, executive orders are far less durable than laws passed by Congress in bipartisan fashion. The next president can reverse actions Obama takes with a stroke of a pen. It's a legacy written in invisible ink. Is that good enough for Obama?

Third, there is an obvious contradiction in the goals laid out in the Wilson story. How does a president simultaneously "distance himself from a recalcitrant Congress" and strike deals on immigration, the farm bill, a minimum-wage hike, and transportation. It's possible, not likely.

Finally, what happened to the ambitious man elected to change the culture of Washington? The Post story comes on the heels of a jarring profile by David Remnick in which Obama seems to have surrendered to the limits of his most-powerful office. "The Obama of The New Yorker profile," wrote Slate's John Dickerson, "wears the limitations of his office like a shawl." From his story:

The president's comments reflect the triumph of experience over hope. He long ago tempered his claims about transforming partisan politics — he now seems a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But the tone of the piece also shows how realistic he has become about harnessing the power of his electoral success and the national mood he claimed it represented. That was a promise of the Obama presidency that didn't rely on a willing Congress. He had a special relationship with voters and he was going to turn it into a force. He called on that bond in his second inaugural address: "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."

But when he talks about tackling income inequality, he no longer speaks of national movements. It's not because the public isn't ready to be led. The country is still looking for a political champion to rally them, but unlike a previous version of Obama who would have promised that he could channel the passion outside Washington to change Washington, his aspirations are more modest now. He hopes to give "voice to an impression, I think a lot of Americans have, which is it's harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who's willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn't born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck — that the ground is less secure under your feet." After six years the president recognizes that people are looking for "other flavors ... somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement."

Obama is right. Polls show the public is growing weary of him, which is a shame because he's still got three years in office. There are big problems to solve, starting with the lack of social and economic mobility. But that's the point. If it's so hard to put a finger on the problem, if the White House seems to ricochet from one slogan to another, lurching from strategy to strategy and consumed by tactics and excuses, maybe the problem is "¦ the man himself. If so, the only question that matters is, can Obama change?