Can Obama Change the Game Again?

To win a second term, Barack Obama will need a new strategy. A new paperback afterword from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of Game Change, discusses the President's re-election campaign

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Christopher Morris for TIME

Republican presidential candidate John McCain attends a campaign rally with his vice-presidential running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, at the Cedar Rapids airport in Iowa on Sept. 18, 2008

They were the two undisputed stars of the 2008 campaign — fresh, charismatic, electrifying. But for now, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have been eclipsed by the churning dynamics of the Tea Party movement, the anger sweeping the nation and the demand for a different kind of change from the one Obama promised just two years ago. The President will struggle to reclaim his momentum after the midterms, while Palin, who has deftly ridden the wave of discontent with Washington and government spending, will emerge stronger than she started the year. Both are sure to play enormous roles in American politics in 2011 and 2012, but neither can be certain if the White House will be home after the next presidential election — or if the desire for something new will put them out in the cold.

With the exception of Obama himself, no one has undergone a greater transformation in the past two years than Sarah Palin. In July 2009, she abruptly quit the Alaska governorship, claiming cryptically that "only dead fish go with the flow," thereby trading in endless battles with her state's legislature and a series of expensive lawsuits for a glamorous career as a well-paid speaker, best-selling author, Fox News commentator and Republican kingmaker.

Though Palin resisted immersing herself in the serious policy issues about which her lack of knowledge remains her greatest weakness if she aspires to the presidency, she has kept her hand in politics with cleverly timed endorsements and frequent flash communications to her fans through Twitter and Facebook. Even as polls have shown that majorities of Americans doubt her qualifications to serve in the Oval Office, she towers over every other Republican figure as a media magnet and rallier of the conservative base. In March 2010, she and John McCain reunited for the first time since the election when she appeared on his behalf at Arizona campaign stops — an effort to vouch for her old partner's bona fides as a leader of the right and an exercise in strained nostalgia. Yet Palin, with her fundraising prowess, devoted adherents and superstardom, is poised to enter the 2012 contest at a time of her choosing.

More than any other character, it was Obama who was at the heart of our book Game Change. And it was he who loomed largest in the public mind after his historic election. In the first two years of Obama's Administration, the fascination with the nation's first African-American President has not only endured but grown as the question fueling his narrative shifted from "Can he win?" to "Can he govern?"

For Obama that transition has been sobering and daunting — a headlong collision with the reality of the White House and a political culture more resistant to change than he ever imagined. Having campaigned largely on his capacity to transcend and mitigate the ruinous polarization that has marked American politics for the better part of two decades, he became a more divisive figure than even Bill Clinton or George W. Bush once he took office. Some of the blame could be laid at Obama's doorstep, some at the feet of the GOP; determining the proper ratio is a subjective matter. What is indisputable is that as Obama ran against Hillary Clinton and then McCain, neither of whom was favored by conservatives, he was able to keep the right from galvanizing against him. But for much of Obama's presidency, the Tea Party–Fox News–Republican swarm has reflexively opposed him, often in viciously personal terms.

If the postpartisan Obama of the campaign was largely absent in the first half of his term, many other aspects of the political character revealed in Game Change — the strengths, the weaknesses, the temperament, the tendencies — have been on vivid display in his White House. Four examples spring to mind.

The first is Obama's aversion to the artifice of politics. For much of 2007, as our book makes clear, the candidate's performance was weak, in no small part because he recoiled from the performance-art elements of the job. And so it was again in 2009 and 2010, as Obama often lapsed into an odd passivity, evincing a stubborn reluctance to engage with voters on a visceral, emotional level and causing supporters and detractors alike to wonder, What's wrong with this guy?

The second is Obama's tendency to perform at his highest level when — and only when — the game is on the line. In the campaign, this penchant, which he demonstrated in the final weeks before Iowa and later during the financial crisis, served him well and earned him the sobriquet of the ultimate fourth-quarter player. In the White House, he has done the same, notably in the last-minute push for the passage of health care reform. Yet, faced with sustained challenges like the BP oil spill, Obama has struggled to calibrate his inner clock and rouse himself to palpable intensity and action.

The third example is Obama's approach to designing and deploying his inner circle. Obama demanded that his people be good at what they do and get along with their colleagues. He filled his Cabinet with strong men and women of great ability and accomplishment. But, just as he did during the campaign, Obama has relied on only a tiny claque of trusted aides for advice on the major decisions confronting him. Though this kind of tightly controlled, top-down approach was effective during the election, more than a few seasoned Washington hands wonder if it is the optimal way to run a White House, let alone the entire federal government — and they argue that Obama should widen the circle, opening himself up to more contrary (and contrarian) counsel.

Fourth, and final, is Obama's failure to put forward what might be called a "theory of the case": a sustained, compelling distillation of his vision of the role of government at this moment in history, the connective tissue between his inspirational rhetoric and concrete policy proposals. In the campaign, Obama found it unnecessary to lay out such a thesis; what he had to do instead was show, during the nomination fight, that he was not a Clinton, and then, during the general election, that he was not a Bush. Yet the absence of a theory of the case has persisted since Obama arrived at the White House. And it has left him a worryingly indistinct figure, even among his supporters, with many on the left seeing him as a temporizing, compromising moderate and many in the center perceiving him as having pitched to the left.

Resolving the question of what Obama stands for, of what Obamaism amounts to, is sure to be among the central concerns of his re-election campaign. Obama will have many concrete accomplishments on which to base his argument for another four years. But the tribulations of his first two years have inflicted a degree of vulnerability on him that was unthinkable on the day of his Inauguration. The perception among Republicans that he is deeply flawed all but guarantees that 2012 will be hotly contested. On the line in the next presidential election for the GOP will be the foundation and character of the party: whether it emerges renewed or profoundly fractured. On the line for Obama will be his place in history: whether he retains the possibility of being a seminal historical figure or sees his presidency rendered as a failed, one-term accident.

For Obama to avoid the latter fate, he will need to muster all of the considerable talent he displayed in 2008. He will need to persuade the country that he is on the way to fulfilling the grand and sweeping promise he embodied for many in that campaign. To make further transformation seem essential while arguing in favor of continuity. To rouse the passions of those he has disappointed and to allay the fears of those he has turned wary. He will need, in other words, to change the game again.

Adapted from the paperback edition of Game Change, © 2010 by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Used by permission