The White House press secretary was all set to TP the White House. He vowed to do it if Auburn won the BCS Championship. Robert Gibbs had a deal all worked out with the Secret Service where they would leave a couple rolls in an undisclosed location, and he would unfurl them over the White House roof or maybe a tree out front.
It was all good in the house of Obama Phi. They balled hard in guys only basketball games. Everyone was a “dude” or a “bro”. They did fist-pumps, not handshakes. Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel dropped f-bombs left and right, and Robert Gibbs never met a sports analogy he didn’t like during White House press meetings. Even the staff elder Lawrence Summers would doze off during economy briefings and generally do whatever he pleased. White House interns learned to be careful rounding West Wing corners lest they find Barack and Michelle canoodling.
And they were changing the world while doing it. Obama’s first two years were two of the most prolific in modern presidential history: the Stimulus Package, improved global image, credit card consumer rights, tobacco regulation, healthcare reform, Wall Street regulation, ending the Iraq War, etc.
But then it happened. The man of Change changed. He took last November’s midterm “shellacking” hard. Republicans took back the House on his watch. Obama looked around the Oval Office and saw too many yes men telling him what he wanted to hear instead of what he needed to. There was too much drama with over-sized egos defending overlapping turf. Wall Street kept griping he wasn’t friendly enough, never mind record company profitability this past 4th quarter.
And the silver tongue tarnished. Obama lost the national debate—not to the Republican party but to three TV personalities: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. The former governor of Alaska turned TLC reality star could ruin the White House’s day with a mere Facebook status update.
So Obama went corporate. Grow up, he thought. No more political Animal House. He recruited high-priced CEOs, like GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, to tighten the ship. He stocked up on the sharpest minds from Wall Street to keep an eye on the kids. He shipped the dour David Axelrod out of Dodge back to Chicago and brought in media savant David Plouffe.
Obama swallowed his pride and walked the block over to the Chamber of Commerce. He joked maybe if he had brought a fruitcake the first time relations would be more neighborly. It was awkward. The lobbyists sort of laughed. But mostly they wanted to see if this new, business-friendlier president would stick around.
It’s been said you can chart presidencies by the Chief of Staff. Rahm Emmanuel, then, was a cantankerous, polarizing, though very effective Chapter 1. Peter Rouse was a shy, pleasant, and brief Chapter 2. Chapter 3 starring Bill Daley should be a more PG-13 Chapter 1.
Bill Daley is “an adult” with a resume to match: U.S. Secretary of Commerce, chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign, JP Morgan Case chairman, etc. He is a hard-knuckled, Chicago throwback ready for a second tour. Bill Daley makes the trains run on time, like Rahm Emmanuel, but he sprinkles a few more “pretty pleases” on top. And most importantly to the Obama administration, he does not tolerate leaks.
Neither does David Plouffe. Plouffe is a quiet guy. Stoic to a fault. Bill Daley and David Plouffe keep to themselves mostly. The doors to their offices are usually closed. Plouffe pipes up every so often in meetings to ask Obama: how will this play with a white mom in Ohio? Daley reminds Obama to jam in the sparkling new “Win the Future” mantra wherever he can.
The President of the United States had to get something off his chest. It was during Winter Vacation last December in Hawaii. Sometime after a shaved ice, sometime after putting the girls to bed. He pulled close friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett aside and confided his biggest regret as president: He had been spending too much time in Washington.
He missed being out and about. The man who cut his teeth organizing on the Southside of Chicago was weary of months in cloistered West Wing meeting rooms. He had enough of hearing what the people wanted in glossy PowerPoint decks rather than in person.
Obama realizes he had to. The global financial system teetered on the brink back in January 2009. He spent every waking moment speed-dialing Europe, hobnobbing Senators, doing everything he could to get the Stimulus Package through. But he missed the town halls. Even the gutter-ball bowling alley photo ops.
Obama knows his work is not finished. Unemployment hovers in the 9%’s, the Middle East simmers, and a government shutdown (however improbable) still looms. But he finally has some breathing room. He tied down many of the loose ends of his predecessor’s legacy and can now mint his own. He challenged the country to have another Sputnik moment in last month’s State of the Union speech. To shake Washington from its bipartisan slumber and awaken a nation to out-innovate China.
The next day he was out touting Wisconsin solar farms to help the U.S. “win the future”. He toasted Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs in California last week. He’s on the road again and loving it. He is looser at the podium, feistier with reporters. He is remembering why he wanted to be president in the first place.
We know Obama now. He is on to the third act on the grandest of stages.
Obama’s first act was the 2008 presidential campaign. “Change we can believe in” became an anthem for a jaded America disillusioned by years of wars and unemployment. His was a fresh face after decades of Bush-Clinton political dynasties.
Obama’s second act (Inauguration Day-First Midterm) ended to mixed reviews. To liberals, the change was too slow. He achieved healthcare reform, yes, but he compromised too much with a Republican party he did not need to compromise with. All too often, they saw fleeting moments of oratorical brilliance only to be followed by months of grind-it-out Congressional log-jam and wonkish, watered-down thousand pagers no one could really explain.
To conservatives, the change was too great. Obama flirted with socialism as he expanded government in an unprecedented spending spree. He was a black Jimmy Carter who kowtowed to foreign leaders and forgot America’s greatness.
Obama’s third act (First Midterm-2012 Election) will be marked not by what he will offer the country but by what he will take away. Gobbledlygook budget talk like: five-year freezes on non-security discretionary spending. It sounds ugly and it will taste worse. Obama is putting the nation on a diet. Austerity not change is the buzz-word of his third and possibly final act. It will be a gritty two years. The president’s job between today and November 2012 is to coax the unemployment rate into the low 8%’s/high 7%s and not wreck the deficit in the meantime.
The President of the United States was about to cry. He paused. 10 seconds. He clenched the podium. 20 seconds. He cleared his throat. Still nothing.
Gabby opened her eyes but that wasn’t what had Obama speechless. Christina Taylor Green did. She was nine years old. Born on September 11, 2001. Three months after his youngest daughter Sasha. She wanted to be a politician when she grew up. Christina Taylor Green was innocence personified, senselessly mowed down in a madman’s rampage.
It wasn’t the first time Obama served as Eulogizer in Chief. There was Fort Hood. The West Virginia mine tragedy. But Tucson was the rawest. The nation watched the cerebral president nearly lose it for the first time. We watched, some cried, as the president stood slack-jawed at the podium, trying to hold it together.
Bill Clinton’s presidency crystallized in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. He found himself and then he found the chord to comfort a nation frazzled by corn-fed, white American rage.
16 years later, Tucson forced an amped-up nation to take a step back. The massacre became a referendum on turbo-charged media and politics. A stunned nation soul-searched. We remembered just because pundits said something louder didn’t make it more right. Sarah Palin’s jingoistic rhetoric wasn’t simply jingoistic rhetoric anymore. And her approval ratings plunged to an all-time low within a week of the shootings. Glenn Beck’s ratings are in free-fall. He lost 39 percent of his viewership in the past year and his ratings skidded to record lows last month.
President Obama is soaring. His approval ratings flirt with the 50s again—well above those of President Reagan and President Clinton after their own first midterm growing pains. Obama’s Renaissance is not because he finally got tough. If anything he softened, compromising on President Bush’s tax cut late last year.
Obama’s recent bump is courtesy of the Bill Clinton, move-to-the-center playbook. It is not as though Republicans didn’t see this coming. They learned from President Clinton’s “triangulation” in the mid 1990s. But conservatives are penned in. They are burdened by their own midterm success after winning the House. They are tugged back and forth between the wants of the base and the whims of the Tea Party.
The president will coast above the fray as the Republican 2012 hopefuls purge their own ranks later this year over abortion, gun control, even evolution. Whichever front runner emerges is fatally flawed. If Mitt Romney’s Mormonism does not lose the base, his Massachusetts healthcare reform surely will. Ron Paul is too libertarian to be electable. Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife is speaking to reporters.
Cam Newton and Auburn did their part, but Robert Gibbs backed out. He couldn’t teepee the White House. It didn’t seem tasteful. Not after Arizona. A few short weeks later, Gibbs boxed up his office and was headed back to Chicago. President Obama thanked him with an anecdote from the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Obama was nervous. Not about the speech. He wandered the convention hall reassuring staffers: “I’m LeBron, Baby. I Can Play On This Level. I Got Some Game.” But he wasn’t sure which tie to wear. He didn’t like his. No one liked David Axelrod’s. But Obama kind of liked Gibbs’. So minutes before the most important speech of Obama’s life—the speech that would make Barack Obama, Barack Obama—Robert Gibbs slipped the tie off his neck and traded with his bro.
Now, six and a half years later, Obama was finally returning the tie. But this time it was framed.
Gibbs hung it up in the Chicago office where he will spearhead Obama’s 2012 purported billion dollar reelection campaign. If Act Three goes by the script, Obama and Gibbs will have to wait. But they’ll laugh it up again in early 2017. They’ll tease each other over their March Madness brackets. And they’ll crack jokes about David Axelrod as a Krispy Kreme model. Just like in the good ol’ days.