Clift, Eleanor, Stone, Daniel, Newsweek
Byline: Eleanor Clift and Daniel Stone
Obama's top strategist is moving back to Chicago to prepare for 2012. He talks about mistakes made, the GOP presidential field, and why 'hope' and 'change' are still good themes.
You're the message man. One of the criticisms of President Obama's first two years in office is that the message was weak. What do you say to that?
I say a couple of things. One is, we came to office in a time of national emergency and economic crisis and two wars, one of which had no strategy. We didn't have the luxury of orchestrating the messaging as we would under normal circumstances. We had to come here and, even before we arrived, do some very tough things--not very popular things--to arrest the free fall of the economy. But I also recognize the nature of the economy, the nature of Congress, and the nature of the midterm elections. We were going to have some level of dislocation come November. I'm gratified that the president's numbers have been as resilient as they've been. So from a political standpoint, he's emerged from a very difficult two years with a solid foundation on which to build.
What are your regrets on how you communicated his persona and accomplishments?
My regret is that we didn't have the time and space to roll things out the way we would under normal circumstances. The Recovery Act is the most misunderstood piece of public policy of recent times. Most people think it was about banks and auto companies, because we had to conflate a whole lot of things in a short period of time to get the economy moving. I regret that.
Can you identify any [other] mistakes over the past two years?
There are things I would have liked to have messaged differently. I would have liked to have taken the tax-cut portion of [the Recovery Act] and spent a long time talking about that. I would have liked to take the energy portion and talked a lot about that. I think we could have done more with the magnificent education reforms that Arne Duncan has championed, the Race to the Top, which has encouraged 34 states to raise their standards. I'm really, really proud of what this president has done during a very difficult time for this country. And he's made some very hard decisions. One of [the pivotal decisions] was on the auto industry. I said to the president, "Before you make a decision, you need to know this isn't going to be very popular." And like on so many things, he said to me, "Yeah, but on the other hand I'm not going to allow the American auto industry to disappear in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression."
You've recently seemed to be dealing with a Democratic insurrection. How will you deal with that break in the party?
I understand there's a lot of consternation about [the tax package] within the Democratic caucus. But at the end of the day, the president was faced with a choice. The choice was whether to let taxes go up by a significant amount on Jan. 1 and whether we let millions of people depending on unemployment insurance have their lifeline cut. Or do you try to work something out? We engaged in negotiations that would produce something far greater than anyone thought we would get. Compromise, however, means accepting things that we don't particularly like.
Part of it is tone. Lately he's seemed angrier at his friends than he is sometimes at the opposition.
This president has gotten a lot of things done that people in our party have tried to get done for decades--in the case of health care, for a century. Let me say something about this issue about anger. I honestly don't think the American people are interested in angry confrontation as a staple of Washington. They've seen plenty of that. What they want is progress. What they want is to move the ball forward. I have no illusions about the differences between our parties. And that we'll have a difficult election in 2012--difficult in the sense that it'll be competitive. …