The Obama Quagmire

Column: How Chuck Hagel and the sequester stalled the president’s agenda

Obama speaks to Organizing for Action / AP
• March 15, 2013 4:59 am


Never let it be said that President Barack Obama won’t admit his mistakes.

"What we don’t want to do is repeat the mistake I think I believe in 2008 we made," he told a rather paltry crowd of inaugural donors to his "social welfare" group Organizing for Action during dinner at the St. Regis hotel Wednesday. "Where some of that energy just kind of dissipated and we were only playing an inside game."

And to correct this mistake, which left the president "sitting in a room with a bunch of folks negotiating all the time," Obama and Organizing for Action pledge—with help from your generous $500,000 contribution—to "give space here in Washington" for bipartisan legislation, by making sure "the American people are speaking out, organized, activated." Only then will Congress act on the president’s ambitious agenda of comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, tax increases, a hike in the minimum wage, government investments in infrastructure, education, and energy, and—well, you know the rest.

I should note that Organizing for Action is happy to accept contributions of less than $500,000. Indeed, it is happy to accept donations of any amount, and plans only to disclose contributions of $250 or more. And though Organizing for Action says it won’t accept funds from lobbyists, corporations, or political action committees, it will happily gobble up funds from labor unions. And it might as well. Obama needs all the help he can get right now.

The president is stuck in a congressional quagmire and no amount of "outside pressure" will get him out. Spring is about to begin. The first 100 days of his second term will end in a little more than a month. Before long baseball will resume, and then the NFL season will begin, and Congress will turn its compound eye to 2014. The president will be a lame duck.

And what will he have to show for it? Guns, immigration, budgets, climate change, and the minimum wage are all tied up on Capitol Hill. No one knows when, or if, they will emerge. Or what they might end up looking like.

Meanwhile, Obama’s approval rating is falling. He has been relegated to visiting the hill, and "reaching out" to select Republican mealtime companions, in an effort to stay relevant. But his activities seem curiously out of place. They demonstrate that the real action at the moment is not in the Oval Office. Even in the drama over the budget, where Obama could play a major role, he seems desultory and content to let Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) have the stage. Otherwise his administration wouldn’t be waiting until April to release its proposal.

What happened? Last week, I suggested Obama and his team had fallen for the "mandate myth," or the false idea that winning reelection guarantees policy success. But there may be more to Obama’s current stall.

Clearly the Obama team, in the aftermath of the president’s reelection, had a strategy. And the strategy was simple: Press the Republicans on all fronts at once. Use the momentum of the campaign and the fiscal cliff deal to win the controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and pass gun controls, immigration reform, and additional tax increases on the wealthy. If the problem was Republican intransigence, then follow Donald Rumsfeld’s (and Dwight Eisenhower’s) advice: "If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it." Break the Republicans by revealing their stubbornness baldly and unequivocally and globally.

There was no way of knowing whether or not this strategy would succeed. And maybe, in some parallel universe, it did succeed. After all, the Republicans are demoralized. They have their own problems. A swell of presidential and media pressure might have forced them into hasty acquiescence.

Such was the president’s bet, anyway. A bet he clearly lost.

Looking back, we can identify two things that seriously eroded the president’s position. The first was Hagel. In the weeks prior to Hagel’s nomination, few could imagine that 41 Republican senators would end up opposing a former Republican senator for secretary of defense. But the battle over Hagel—the vetting of his positions on the Middle East, Iran, and the U.S. nuclear deterrent; the revelation of anti-Israel remarks he had made in the past; his horrible performance during his confirmation hearing, which revealed him to be completely unqualified—rallied Republicans against the president at a critical juncture. It also had the effect, in a body that seems incapable of dealing with more than one controversy at a time, of slowing down the rest of the president’s agenda.

Robert Reich, the left-wing economist, predicted as much. "There is a puzzle here," he said during a Jan. 6 discussion of Hagel on "This Week." "With all the fights that the president has coming up, why is he doing this? I mean, there are a lot of other people he could be putting up, but why is he expending political capital in this way? I don’t understand." Credit Reich for prescience and good judgment—if only in this particular case.

Actually, also credit him for predicting that Obama’s sequester strategy would fail. "The White House apparently believes the best way to strengthen its hand in the upcoming ‘sequester’ showdown with Republicans is to tell Americans how awful the spending cuts will be, and blame Republicans for them," Reich wrote on Feb. 25. "It won’t work." And it didn't work. The White House’s hyperbolic sequester approach backfired. Many of the claims made by administration officials were exposed as false. And some of the actions those officials took—such as releasing illegal immigrants in detention and closing the White House to tours—were clumsy and harmful.

The situation is beginning to resemble the start of the most recent second term. I remember a dinner I had with a columnist friend before the August 2005 recess. My gloomy friend noted that Bush had lost his momentum and probably could not get it back. Don’t worry, I told him. Bush is going to regain the initiative after winning passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the bankruptcy reform bill. Then he’ll stabilize Iraq. All will be well.

Shows you what I know. Bush’s second term went horribly. It gave us Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama. His mistake, in retrospect, was in not surging troops to Iraq and adopting a counterinsurgency strategy after winning reelection. He, too, fell for the mandate myth. He fell for a flawed political strategy of deemphasizing the war and turning to Social Security and immigration reform.

I no longer predict the future (see above). But it seems to me quite possible that, four years from now, as Obama addresses high-dollar donors to whatever Organizing for Action becomes after he leaves office, the president will look back on the first months of 2013 and say: Mistakes were made.