Dan Pfeiffer's Exit Interview: On Surrendering to Polarization and How Barack Obama Gave Up

Adviser departs White House with thoughtful perspective and excuses.

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.

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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.

Was he deceptive or naive? Pfeiffer takes the prize behind door No. 2. "He had hopes of being able to change the polarization, not just in the country, but in Washington," Pfeiffer told Chait. "We learned very quickly that that was a lot harder than we thought. He will always say that his one biggest regret is that he's been unable to deliver on that promise."

That's a pretty major regret: failure on the foundational promise of his presidency.

According to Chait, Pfeiffer said the structural forces made communications with the GOP hopeless.

"There's very little we can do to change the Republicans' political situation, because they are worried about a cohort of voters who disagree with most of what the president says," Pfeiffer said. "We don't have the ability to communicate with them—we can't even break into the tight communication circles to convince them that climate change is real. They are talking to people who agree with them, they are listening to news outlets that reinforce that point of view, and the president is probably the person with the least ability to break into that because of the partisan bias there."

Fair enough. But what about the Democrats? Chait and Pfeiffer conveniently left unspoken the other side of the coin: The big sort, big money, and media polarization are structural forces that span the political spectrum, from right to left. Unless Pfeiffer is arguing that structural forces magically apply pressure unevenly (he did not say so), then perhaps he is making the rare case for equivalence: Both parties are roughly equally drawn to their extremes.

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But I'm putting words in his mouth.

Pfeiffer's reading of the red-blue impasse isn't that it's a permanent catastrophe. Demographic change will eventually force Republicans to compete with Democrats for some of the same voters, reopening a national political conversation that is accessible to both parties. And Democrats will find the millennial generation in play. "We're going to have to work harder to get them registered to vote and involved, and that offers an opportunity, because while they are very progressive in some of their general leanings, they're less tied to institutions and parties." But that will have to happen after this administration has left the scene.

If I'm reading this right, Pfeiffer is acknowledging a point that I've made repeatedly and that is supported by numerous polls: Young Americans, an electoral bloc that lifted Obama to the presidency, are returning to their swing-voter roots. Pfeiffer is right about millennials' disconnect from institutions and political parties. They're also nonideological, pragmatic, impatient, and purpose-driven—attributes they don't see reflected in politics and government today. More than any recent generation, millennials are civic-minded and socially engaged—yet they don't think government and politics are an effective means for positive change.

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Pfeiffer, Chait, and other professional progressives want Obama's legacy to be that he has accomplished "the majority of the substantive agenda he promised" despite polarization. Setting aside the debatable math (a majority of his agenda, really?), my guess is that historians won't be as quick as Obama apologists to shrug off his biggest failure.

His legacy will be his surrender to the polarization that he promised to defeat. Pfeiffer writes it off as a "regret," but historians may recognize it as a tragic failure to transfer young voters' enthusiasm for his candidacy into engagement with his government—a modern, efficient, bipartisan way of getting things done. The millennial way.