By Ron Fournier
June 9, 2014
The email hit my in-box at 9:41 p.m. last Wednesday. From one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington, a close adviser to the White House, the missive amounted to an electronic eye roll. "Even I have had enough."
Another Democrat had quit on President Obama.
The tipping point for this person was the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl case—not the soldier-for-Taliban swap itself as much as how the White House mishandled its obligation to communicate effectively and honestly to Congress and the public. More than that, Obama's team had failed once again to acknowledge its mistakes, preferring to cast blame and seek cover behind talking points.
"DC is hard, and depressing," the Democrat wrote. "I still believe good comes from government (e.g. 8 million in ACA). But that Politico story is a cautionary one: good reminder that you can't go so in the bunker [and] no longer identify legitimate criticism." That day, Politico had posted a story channeling the White House communications team's response to the Bergdahl backlash.
White House aides were aware Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been tagged a deserter, and that they would be grilled over not keeping Congress in the loop. But they figured people would be most outraged over the national security implications.
The White House has been surprised by how much attention has remained on the questions about Bergdahl, from the circumstances of his disappearance to the wild beard his father grew while he was being held that's even led to Bergdahl's hometown canceling a celebration. All this, Obama aides say, is in their minds a proxy for the hatred toward the president.
The new approach: Frame the criticism as another example of Republicans complaining about something just because Obama was the one to do it.
To this senior Democrat, the Politico story showed the White House to be both tone-deaf and arrogant, two vices that are undermining what could have been a great presidency.
I share this email to make the broader point and to offer a disclosure: In the 18 months since I began writing columns focused on the presidency, virtually every post critical of Obama has originated from conversations with Democrats. Members of Congress, consultants, pollsters, lobbyists, and executives at think tanks, these Democrats are my Obama-whispers. They respect and admire Obama but believe that his presidency has been damaged by his shortcomings as a leader; his inattention to details of governing; his disengagement from the political process and from the public; his unwillingness to learn on the job; and his failure to surround himself with top-shelf advisers who are willing to challenge their boss as well as their own preconceived notions.
"Dem Party is F****d," wrote a Democratic consultant with strong ties to the White House and Capitol Hill during the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act website.
A Democratic House member whose endorsement in 2008 helped lift the Obama candidacy told me in January, "He's bored and tired of being president, and our party is paying the price."
"Talented guy but no leader," said a Democratic lobbyist and former member of Congress in March. "If he could govern half as well as he campaigns, he'd be a good-to-great president."
Questioning why the Veterans Affairs Department hadn't been overhauled months ago as promised by Obama, a senior White House official conceded privately to me, "We don't do the small stuff well. And the small stuff is the important stuff."
The level of disquiet among Democrats reminds me of President George W. Bush's second term, when my best sources were frustrated Republicans. (Interviewing Republicans today is like interviewing Democrats in 2006: predictably partisan, rarely insightful.)
Few frustrated Democrats are willing to complain openly. I grant them anonymity, which creates a problem: Readers, for good reason, don't trust anonymous quotes. One way to avoid deluging readers with unnamed Democrats is for me to digest their complaints along with other reporting to shape my columns and tweets. Like this one:
WH say communications team was surprised by #Bergdahl backlash. Really? How is that possible? POTUS needs a new communications staff.
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) June 9, 2014
Or this tweet after Democrats and Republicans in Congress questioned the Bergdahl affair, and Obama pushed back by saying: "I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, right?"
"Controversies whipped up in Washington" = "Controversies I began or fueled and refuse to shoulder any blame for, or to learn from" #Obama
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) June 8, 2014
I got that one from an Obama family friend. The same mistakes get made again and again, provoking a familiar chorus of friendly fire, which leads me to conclude that either Democrats aren't being honest with the president, or he isn't listening. Either way, when those closest to him are quitting on him, it's hard to maintain the audacity to hope that Obama will change.