When I spotted this headline on Twitter, "Dan Pfeiffer's Exit Interview: On Learning to Ignore Republicans and How the White House Gave Up," I assumed Jonathan Chait's piece would be a wet-kiss excuse for President Obama's failures, with no mention of lessons that might guide future presidents.
I was half-right. While the column is an eye-rolling apologia, Pfeiffer's analysis of the current and coming landscape was at times thoughtful and forward-looking. Chait's piece, which can be read in full here, starts with a riff about how the White House "lost its illusions."
"I think [Obama] believes, and I certainly believe, that while we can always do better, this is a case where structural forces are the large actor here," he told me. Pfeiffer cited three of them. The first is rising polarization—"the great sorting," as he called it—which, over a period of decades, has driven white conservatives out of the Democratic Party and moderates out of the Republican Party, creating two ideologically homogeneous political organizations. The second is the disintegration of restrictions on campaign finance, which "gives people even more incentive to play to the far right or to a set of special-interests donors, so that one individual can basically, especially in these House races, do a $1 million expenditure and completely tip the balance." And, finally, the news media has changed so that people select only sources that will confirm their preexisting beliefs.
The "great sorting" was well underway years before Obama took office and was famously documented by author Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, a book published six months before the 2008 election. Media polarization also predates the Obama presidency, although the pernicious trend has gained steam in recent years. The "structural force" most developed within the Obama era is big money, unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling.
Given that these structural forces were in place or jelling before Obama's presidential run, it's fair to ask whether he misled the American public in 2007 and 2008 when he pledged to change the culture of Washington. He would bring Republicans and Democrats together, the freshman senator declared, and forge compromises on solutions to the nation's biggest problems.