You know a president is in deep trouble when even an improving economy can’t boost his popularity. That’s the situation facing Barack Obama, as optimism about a less anemic recovery in the coming year has done nothing to halt the slide in his approval numbers. With every poll showing him in deep trouble, it’s time for the White House to call in reinforcements and that’s what they’ve done by getting former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to return to the West Wing as a counselor. Podesta, a veteran liberal ideologue as well as a friend of current White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, is seen as bringing a steady hand to a political operation that has been shaken by a year of scandals and legislative failures that capped off with a spectacular fiasco in the form of the ObamaCare rollout and the revelation that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance was a lie.
The thought appears to be that if anyone can get the president back on track it is the guy who helped Clinton weather the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial. Moreover, Podesta’s presence in a position of influence will reinforce the sense that the president will use his second term to take a sharp turn even farther to the left than the agenda he has already pursued. But as much as McDonough needs all the grown-ups he can muster to deal with the unanswered questions about ObamaCare and countless other failures, large and small, no one should be expecting Podesta to be the cavalry who will ride to the president’s rescue. The problems that this awful fifth year of the Obama presidency exposed can’t be fixed by a stronger focus on liberal doctrine, more attacks on the Republicans, or even greater accountability on the part of White House staff, though the latter would certainly be a welcome development. But the problem with this administration isn’t process; it’s credibility. Once a president has lost it, no gathering of wise heads or political magicians can rescue the situation.
According to the New York Times, Podesta will have special responsibility for pushing climate change issues as well as in advising the president on implementing ObamaCare and administrative and organizational issues. But there’s little doubt that his presence in the White House has as much, if not more to do with the president’s need to regain the political initiative.
There’s no question that the amateur show that we’ve been watching this last year—in contrast to the brilliant and sharp-elbowed reelection campaign we saw the president conduct in 2012—is a good reason to bring in someone experienced in both handling scandals and keeping his head. Podesta’s presence is a sign that Obama will take a page out of the Clinton war room playbook and conduct a fierce partisan counter-attack on Republicans. That’s the sort of thing that has worked for this administration in the past, albeit with a good deal of help from those in the GOP with a desire for suicide charges in the form of things like the government shutdown. Podesta has a well-earned reputation as a bare-knuckled left-wing combatant and it is to be expected that his advice will err on the side of more confrontation rather than a genuine effort on the part of the White House to seek compromise with Republicans.
Podesta is a skilled tactician, but it is a mistake to think the president’s decline is a function of tactics or process. What we have seen in the last 12 months is a gradual dropping away of the sense on the part of most Americans that the president is a well-intentioned man whose word can be trusted. That cannot be fixed by more pushback against the opposition or by a pivot to the left to pursue liberal agenda items like income inequality. Nor is it helped when the president continues to deny that he lied about ObamaCare coverage or to dismiss genuine problems like the IRS scandal as merely the product of a right-wing conspiracy. If the president’s poll numbers now match those of George W. Bush at a similar point in his administration it is not because of bad advice but bad policy, and a lack of honesty about it.
Rather than conjuring up the sort of misdirection plays that enabled Clinton to stay one step ahead of his foes, what the president needs is more humility and honesty, not more political combat. That such a shift seems unimaginable tells us more about the White House’s problems than it does about how they can be fixed.