“Charm Offensive,” The American Prospect, July 2009.
How the Obama White House has mastered the expectations game.
In Barack Obama’s White House, there’s a fine line between tourism and negotiation. On a June afternoon at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, 26 individual stakeholders in the health-care debate mounted the sprawling spiral staircase to the building’s Indian Treaty Room. The progressive health-reform advocates, who ranged from professors to activists to physicians, had been invited to discuss an administration report on disparities in health care and health outcomes — but couldn’t help gawking at the ornate ceilings and marbled balcony ringing the room. After striding in with Tina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took a lap around the folding tables, pausing to greet the White House guests personally, as an agency photographer preserved each heartfelt embrace for the HHS Web site. To maintain order during discussions, senior health-care adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle asked those who wished to speak to upend the folded paper placard bearing their name and affiliation. When she flung open the conversation with a general question — “What about the current system needs to change?” — each of the nametags went up like white flags.
The chance to have the ear of three powerful officials in the Obama administration was not lost on the group. In turn, each spoke for several minutes about the issues most important to them — health technology training, LGBT principles for health-care reform, an interagency task force on minority health. “We all know that coverage does not equal access, and access doesn’t equal quality,” said Fredette West, chair of the Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities Coalition. “The disease we suffer from is anonymity,” added Stacey Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board. DeParle — who has been personally shepherding White House negotiations on health-care reform — barely spoke. For 60 minutes she, Sebelius, and Tchen maintained a united front of bobbing heads and scratching pens. After the speech, a jostle of men and women pressed business cards and blueprints into their hosts’ hands. Tchen waved the stack of papers and insisted they were speeding along to the president’s desk. “That’s our job,” she said.
However, just as the thrilled invitees left the White House, word broke that the Senate Committee on Help, Education, Labor and Pensions had released the first public draft of its health care bill. Of course, the bill will go through several iterations before a final version leaves Congress, but one thing was clear: The health care concrete was already being poured. Did that mean the Indian Treaty session was more group therapy than grand strategy?
The Obama team assiduously courted various liberal interest groups over the course of the 2008 campaign, and found itself, upon election, inundated with speaking requests, policy papers, and personnel recommendations from the same progressive chorus. After eight years in the Republican wilderness, these groups are overjoyed to have the ear of the most powerful policy shop in the world. As Howard Dean, former Democratic party chair, sees it, “There’s always a debate [on] whether the president will change Washington or Washington will change the president. Most people bet on Washington and they’re usually right. It’s our job to make sure this time they’re wrong.”
Obama has certainly not returned to campaign mode, when literally hundreds of aides kept surrogates, key political action committees, unions and nonprofits saying “yes we can.” But Team Obama’s success at inspiring hope means that today “their management task is enormous,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the progressive think tank NDN. “Everybody wants to be part of the Obama magic.” To manage the liberal chorus, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett staffed the longstanding White House Office of Public Liaison with more handlers than ever before. These mediators are tasked with managing the expectations of the voters, interest groups, and opinion-makers that make up the progressive coalition. The administration has “divvied up the family” on the left and assigned issue-specific handlers, says Rosenberg—not to fight political battles against the scattered Republican opposition, but to satisfy core progressive groups, even when it can’t deliver their most desired policy goals.
In early May, the White House announced that it was changing the name of the office to the friendlier “Office of Public Engagement,” and repurposing it to better coordinate not just conversations with the general public and civil-sector groups, but also the administration’s ideological allies. The official announcement called OPE “the front door to the White House” that “will allow ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concern them and share their views on important topics such as health care, energy and education.” With “desks” responsible for reaching out to governors, mayors, labor leaders, health care advocates, businesspeople, and environmentalists, OPE is the prototypical example of the White House’s expectations strategy: The name switch earned the administration symbolic credit for making change, but brings no specific new inclusiveness with it. Indeed, they seem to interpret “engagement” as simply the chance to gain an audience with the president’s team.
The White House has also made an unprecedented effort to stay connected with supporters outside Washington—who in turn reward the president with the time, space, and approval ratings needed to implement his agenda. Obama’s staff places several of the letters he receives from ordinary Americans in a much-publicized “purple folder,” and he personally answers a few every day. Facebook, Twitter and other social media keep his young and tech-savvy fans engaged; and the Democratic Party has used the gargantuan Obama “list”—over 10 million sympathetic email addresses—to elicit constituent calls in support of the president’s health care reform agenda, among other items.
The liberal infighting of the 1990s suggested Clinton’s inability to manage his political base, and cost the former president the chance to enact major progressive reforms. President George W. Bush, by comparison, managed conservative expectations almost too well—by July 2001, according to The Washington Post, Bush had “systematically reached out to virtually every element of the conservative coalition—from antiabortion advocates to western property rights activists to anti-tax groups to evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholics to proponents of a robust national missile defense.” Soon after, the man who campaigned as a “uniter” became known as a partisan hack.
Obama’s unique path to the presidency, in which many of the established progressive constituencies were either neutral or supporting Hillary Clinton until late in the primaries, and in which the bulk of his support came through an organization built around him rather than a union or a constituency group, means that he owes no one—and everyone. And, with the explosion of new groups formed by younger supporters, bloggers, and others, there are far more mouths to feed, or expectations to manage, than there were for either Bush or Clinton. As a result, the undertaking is naturally much bigger, and the possibility of backlash much more worrisome.
Thus the ability to coerce, engage and, yes, distract his own progressive coalition has become one of Obama’s signature achievements. Fred Barnes, a chief Obama critic from the right, calls the president a “master of misdirection … a great salesman, marketing his product—the liberal agenda, plus a few add-ons—in a manner that disguises what he’s really up to.” That’s not a very charitable description, but it’s not all wrong. The administration’s creative tactics to occupy its base—a mixture of flattery, availability, and issues-based outreach—keep the left from vocally demanding a quick exit from Iraq, or the stringing-up of CEOs. By placating the left privately, the White House avoids being seen as overtly liberal by the general public—and thus Obama can roll out liberal policies at his leisure.
The administration may have an open-door policy for members of its progressive base, but that has not always translated into actual influence. More often than not, the president and his advisers make the sausages themselves. And the real surprise is how little liberals seem to mind.
In late April, when most media outlets were focused on grading Obama’s first 100 days in office, Joshua Dubois, the executive director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was making the rounds of several groups devoted to social justice and community uplift. He took time out on a recent Sunday evening to address the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), which educates and mobilizes liberal American Jews on various political concerns. Again, the message was about inclusion. “The president strongly believes we can’t solve these challenges here in Washington,” DuBois said. “We have to connect with individuals and families and communities all across the country, and that includes community-based groups and faith-based organizations.” DuBois was joined by White House economic adviser Larry Summers and senior strategist David Axelrod, who said he arrived “as an ally and friend,” asking the audience “to express yourselves when you feel that we’re losing our way.” Axelrod worked a swarm of RAC donors long after his address, administering his signature solemn, mustachioed nod. “To the extent that you can rally support for us that would be greatly appreciated,” he said.
The personal touch, it seems, is enough to keep countless diverse interests in line. The White House has treated major liberal groups as though they were member states of a United Nations of progressives—sending top brass as ambassadors to the National Council of La Raza, NARAL-Pro-Choice America, Families USA, the Arab-American Institute, and others. Even first lady Michelle Obama has joined in the effort, speaking to groups of black Americans and women—key Democratic constituencies—about work-life balance. This diplomacy allows the White House to give each liberal group the appearance of influence without folding dozens of warring constituencies into the phone booth where policy is actually made. A spokesperson for Unity ’09, a secretive coalition of many of the major groups on the left that seeks to help Obama push his agenda through Congress, says the White House “keep[s] channels of communication open,” while Robert Borosage, president of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, notes that “this is an administration that’s got a lot of friends in it. This is a place where you get your phone calls returned.”
Even the Cabinet secretaries most pressed for time know better than to shirk their babysitting duties. Timothy Geithner, the much-maligned Secretary of the Treasury, addressed the annual meeting of Independent Community Banks of America on May 12. “Everyone here should know,” Geithner began, “that three days after I was sworn in as Treasury Secretary, [ICBA president] Cam Fine was in my office talking about the ICBA.” Again, the substantive policy discussions may or may not involve the relevant interest groups—in fact, the Treasury’s banking plan advantages irresponsible mega-banks over the better-managed community banks in question—but again, the White House strategy emphasizes making interest-group leadership feel a part of the conversation.
Then there are the many summits—on fiscal responsibility, faith organizations, regulatory policy, health care—that Obama has hosted in his first few months in office. On White House turf, the conversation often involves opposing voices; at the fiscal responsibility summit in February, for example, centrist lawmakers dominated discussion, rather than the representatives from Change to Win, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Center for American Progress and the NAACP. Still, events like these seem to placate progressives. Borosage feels “the White House has been a co-conspirator in different ways” —including inviting several members of CAF’s Health Care for America Now (HCAN) coalition to an early March summit on health reform. And such access gives nonprofits a prominent justification for their organizing efforts. “You want people who represent women, children, labor unions and think tanks,” says Jackie Schechner, a spokeswoman for HCAN. “If you’re going to bring those people into the White House, it makes perfect sense to come to us.”
Inviting ideological opponents also has had the effect of neutralizing (in the case of the big health insurance providers) or shaming (in the case of the major credit card executives) powerful interests into a more favorable stance with respect to White House policy asks. Though Republican senators might fulminate against a Detroit bailout, the optics of a smiling passel of automobile manufacturers standing in the Rose Garden quickly blunts the voices of opposition. And when unpopular banking executives came to the White House, Obama served them an austere, if appropriate luncheon: warm water.
The administration’s charm offensive has certainly united the various liberal interest groups. “In terms of the agenda, and a willingness to share approaches…this is better than any Democratic administration that I experienced,” says Anna Burger, president of Change to Win. This heralds a capital culture quite distinct from the Washington of Clinton’s presidency, when liberal organizations were fractured and unruly. “The most striking difference is what’s built on the outside, not the atmosphere on the inside,” says Borosage. “Clinton looked for support on his health care stuff, [but] when they reached out there wasn’t much there to reach out to.” Today, “there’s not much daylight between the Obama administration and the grassroots at all,” adds Dean. By appearing to pull back the curtain on Obama’s agenda—itself strikingly similar to the issues espoused by the biggest progressive nonprofits—the White House has created, on the left, a culture of investment in the president’s success. Adds Borosage, “This is not Bill Clinton trying to sell school uniforms; this is a guy who understands that we’re in the middle of a fundamental crisis and fundamental reforms are needed.”
The real question, however, is whether progressive groups know the difference between managing expectations and producing results.
A few months into Barack Obama’s presidency, Army Second Lieutenant Sandy Tsao mailed him a letter — a letter that happened to make it all the way to the famed purple folder on his desk. Tsao, who had told her superiors she was a lesbian just days after Obama was inaugurated, asked the president to “help us to win the war against prejudice” and to repeal the Clinton-era law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which compels gays in the military to conceal their sexual orientation. Such personal letters, said the White House press shop, “impact [Obama] greatly”—and in Tsao’s case, she received a handwritten response. The president scrawled: “It is because of outstanding Americans like you that I committed to changing our current policy.”
As both letters made the rounds of liberal interest groups and advocates for civil rights and marriage equality, expectations soared. The exchange, many thought, was proof that the president who had campaigned on a pledge to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” grasped the importance of spotlighting the policy—and would reward his progressive base with swift action. Why else write such a high-profile response to Tsao?
Yet, less than one month after Tsao received the letter from Obama, the White House put the brakes on repeal, pending a full Pentagon review. In fact, Obama explicitly pushed the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the legality of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” So was the outreach to LGBT groups insincere? Perhaps. But the liberal hordes should have read Obama’s fine, left-handed print. Couched in the public missive to Tsao was a hedge—parenthetical, of course—that noted any change “needs congressional action” and thus “will take some time to complete.”
This underscores the essential problem of expectations management: It deprives the expectant groups of any real agency. Most dealmakers feel honored to sit in the East Room as legislation is signed or key appointments are announced. A firm promise to “explore” or “move forward” is often enough to placate them. “When the golden hand of a White House staffer touches you,” says Rosenberg, “you’re more willing to be satisfied with the attention than with the end result.” Many women members of Congress and countless female leaders of civil society groups attended the March signing of a presidential order establishing a White House Council on Women and Girls. But, with the photo-op long over, it’s unclear whether the council has lived up to its mandate to meet regularly with all of the agency heads.
Of course, liberal groups haven’t always fallen in line. One of the greatest challenges to the administration’s approach came on the eve of Obama’s 50-minute speech on American national security at the National Archives in late May. Standing before the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, he launched into a defense of his administration’s handling of contentious issues relating to civil liberties and terrorism. “Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world,” he said.
Just the day before, Obama had stood before in-the-flesh advocates for those documents he used as a backdrop for his speech. Representatives from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch met Axelrod, Attorney General Eric Holder, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and General Counsel Gregory Craig in the White House cabinet room. The president’s decision to convene a high-level conference with the groups—which had been critical of his handling of military tribunals, Guantánamo detainees, and the use of torture against enemy combatants—was in step with his previous approach to engagement with other vocal progressives.
But, unlike the participants in the health care meeting with Sebelius, the civil liberties groups weren’t simply grateful for the audience. They pressed the president to go after Republican enablers of the torture regime, and one attendee told Obama that his policies were akin to those of his predecessor. The president was reportedly livid; for once, expectations had been totally mismatched. In the speech on national security the following day, Obama criticized the Bush administration officials for being “on the wrong side of the debate and the wrong side of history”—but he stopped short of saying they were on the wrong side of the law. And sure enough, representatives from the same pro-prosecution groups were invited to hear their wishes go unfulfilled.
Most liberal groups tend to shrug off the idea that they are being manipulated by a savvy public relations team. “It’s not like somebody in the Obama administration says, ‘Okay, you need to do this campaign and we go out and do it,” says the Unity ‘09 spokesman. “Rather, it’s that we have an incredible commonality of interests and goals…. It’s a happy coincidence.” Rosenberg is frank about the compromises involved: “They’re not trying to create unity, they’re trying to create consensus,” he says. “Everyone knows that they’re going to get less than a full loaf.”
Liberal groups haven’t been completely toothless. When rumors swirled that the White House might try to launch a Social Security and entitlement reform commission out of the February summit on fiscal responsibility, liberal groups pushed back hard with allies on the hill—scuppering one of the pro-reform speakers.
And on some occasions, the president has found he needs his base just as much as they need him. When it became clear that a gargantuan economic stimulus would be necessary soon after Obama took office, the transition team mobilized dozens of outside progressive groups to weigh in. In fact, the Recovery Act began with an open call for “shovel-ready” projects from both local officials and nonprofit interest groups. The legislation was drafted over the course of numerous meetings with teams of non-governmental policy analysts—almost exclusively on the left—who were given tailored portfolios on civil rights, Treasury or State Department issues, and even specific regional concerns. “There was a very inclusive, very broad set of outreach to a variety of different constituencies to solicit their views on important policies on the transition,” says Wade Henderson, longtime president of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights. “[Obama] had a lot of decentralized efforts that focused both on expertise in the field as well as outreach to important constituencies.”
Still, there are still dozens of unchecked boxes on the progressive to-do list—the Employee Free Choice Act, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” war funding, bank bailouts—and yet the groups are still searching for the leverage—and the motivation—to push Obama to act. “We’re still in the honeymoon phase,” says Rosenberg. “This is going to get harder, and it’s going to test their capacity to manage this relationship over time.”