Tilting at Windmills

Frame of reverence

If you went into homes up in the hollows of Charlie Peters’s West Virginia and elsewhere in the decades following World War II, you could often find photographs of FDR. The same was later true of JFK’s picture, and not just where Catholics lived. The people who hung them on their walls are mostly dead, and their children—at least in West Virginia—are mostly Republicans. But after the executive order on immigration, it’s a good bet that many Latino and other immigrant families will join African Americans in giving a place of prominence in their homes to a photograph of Barack Obama.

Scalia’s bull

The Social Security Act of 1935 was a flawed and racist bill. It excluded from coverage sharecroppers, maids, and almost any other occupation held by blacks. But FDR knew the landmark legislation could be fixed in later years, and it was. Same with Bill Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996.

Unfortunately, we can’t get on with necessary fixes to Obamacare (e.g., shielding doctors from being penalized for practicing medicine at odds with distant review boards) until the Republicans stop trying to kill it. The latest threat comes from the Supreme Court, which is poised to ignore the obvious congressional intent (cited repeatedly by conservative justices in other cases) and upend the ACA on a technicality, a corrupt power grab that I don’t put past the conservative majority. If that happens this summer, the White House is rumored to be prepared with a technicality of its own—a workaround that uses HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange, as the architecture for instant new exchanges in states that don’t currently offer them, which would essentially restructure Obamacare by executive order.

Like executive orders on carbon emissions and immigration, this approach would be waving a red cape in front of a bull, as Mitch McConnell put it. The Court’s bull, Antonin Scalia, will go nuts if the White House tries to circumvent the high court’s decision, and he won’t be alone. A Supreme Court-induced constitutional crisis could be on the way.

Charming as he wants to be

A few days after FDR was sworn in as president on March 4, 1933, he went to the home of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., where a small group celebrated the retired justice’s ninety-second birthday with some bootleg champagne. (Imagine Obama smoking a little weed with John Paul Stevens.) Holmes advised the new president, “You are in a war, Mr. President, and in a war there is only one rule. Form your battalion and fight.” After FDR left, Holmes famously remarked, “A second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”

Obama has a first-class intellect and a much better record than he’s given credit for. But we’ve learned that his second-class political temperament is preventing him from being the great president he could have been. Obama is not a “happy warrior,” the ghostwritten moniker FDR (reluctantly) applied to his frenemy, Al Smith, at the 1924 Democratic National Convention.

In the better-late-than-never department, the president seems to be more of a domestic warrior these days, particularly on immigration and the environment, and confrontational vetoes lie ahead. The problem is the “happy” part. Because he seems to be missing the schmooze gene, it’s harder for Obama to form his battalion. The Democrats he needs now on the Hill are annoyed with him for not being in better touch since he took office.

Yes, it’s whiny, but think of it from their perspective. Practically every time they go home, some liberal constituent asks, “How’s the president? When’s the last time you spoke?” The legislators cough nervously, shuffle their feet, then lie and claim they’ve “seen” him just recently, which means they’ve glimpsed him from fifty feet away with 1,000 other people at some Washington wingding. In truth, surprisingly few Democratic senators (and even fewer House members) have spoken to Obama one on one in years. He’s just not that into them, though it’s his job to pretend otherwise.

George Washington had dinner every week with representatives of the legislative branch, alternating between senators and congressmen. Before World War II, FDR spent a couple of hours a day in back-to-back fifteen-minute one-on-one meetings, often with members of Congress who wanted something. (Roosevelt liked to hold favor seekers off by telling long, irrelevant stories that ate up most of the allotted time.) Lyndon Johnson talked to congressmen when he was on the toilet, and Bill Clinton chatted up Alabama Representative H. L. “Sonny” Callahan while being serviced by Monica Lewinsky, but at least these presidents knew the importance of reaching out.

Even if one believes, as I do, that the blame for gridlock rests overwhelmingly with obstructionist and sometimes unpatriotic Republicans (especially their refusal to help out during the Great Recession), Obama has blown his congressional relations. Remember when he sourly asked at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner why anyone would ever want to have a drink with Mitch McConnell? That may have been the dumbest line of Obama’s presidency. A White House source told me that attempts were made to delete the joke beforehand but the president insisted it stay in.

Compare that to FDR’s brilliantly insouciant skewering of “Martin, Barton, and Fish,” three irritating Republican congressional leaders, whose names Roosevelt relished enunciating from the podium in a way that made them seem like dreary Dickensian functionaries. Roosevelt got hammered by the Democratic Congress in 1937 over his Court-packing scheme and by the voters in the 1938 midterms. But at least he knew how to make the other side look petty and lead his own troops into battle.

In his classic text, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt, a great political scientist and friend of this magazine, wrote, “Temperament is the great separator. Experience will leave its mark on expertise; so will a man’s ambitions for himself and his constituents. But something like that ‘first-rate’ temperament is what turns know-how and desire into personal account.”

Democrats have concluded that it’s much too late for Obama to change his aloof and insular temperament. Maybe so, but let’s not forget that the president can be hugely charming when he wants to be. To hold the Democrats on key votes and do more business, when necessary, with Republicans, Obama needs to perform some schmooze-gene therapy on himself. He did it in 2008 to get elected and can do so again to secure his legacy.

Is that a shrimp in your pocket?

Going Hollywood has its privileges. Among mine as an executive producer of Alpha House, the Amazon Prime comedy about four Republican senators living in a man cave on Capitol Hill, is to see some of the experiences and lessons of my Washington Monthly years up on the little computer screen (or big TV screen, if you have Roku or another gadget). For instance, when I lived on the Hill as a poor young WM writer in the early 1980s, I sometimes ate dinner by trolling uninvited through receptions, stuffing shrimp and other buffet food into my pockets. One of our characters does the same in the first episode of season two, with messy consequences.

More substantively, Garry Trudeau, the creator and show runner, wrote a great scene in season one that reflects a long-standing WM theme. Senator Gil John Biggs, played by John Goodman, is having his hair cut in his hometown barbershop in North Carolina. The locals bitch about big government and freeloaders while also complaining that their farm price supports have been cut and the coast isn’t being protected from hurricanes. When the barber finishes, he offers the haircut for free. Biggs, annoyed by the hypocrisy, says quietly, “No, I think I’ll pay.”

A nation of Maytag repairmen

In November, the New York Times revealed that thousands of government workers and contractors are involved in undercover work, not just for the FBI and the IRS, but for agencies like NASA and even the U.S. Supreme Court, which sends undercover agents wearing backpacks and casual clothes to infiltrate groups of peaceful demonstrators gathered outside the Court.

This took me back to the early 1970s in Chicago, where my late mother, a few other women, and a couple of men (including my late father) would gather around our dining room table and plot how to get the Daley political machine to broaden the party and let more women in. One day, a quiet but friendly man who often joined the group let slip that he wouldn’t be coming anymore because his assignment had changed. This sounded odd but made sense later when local newspapers revealed that the Chicago Police Department had a secret unit called the “Red Squad” that spied on seventy-seven local groups (including my mom’s), almost all of them innocuous. It was a sign of how few women undercover police officers existed in those days that our spy was a man.

Jane Byrne, who became Chicago’s first woman mayor in 1979 and died this past November, would later use Red Squad files to try to discredit my mother. Byrne made headlines in 1975 claiming that I had been arrested for ripping down Daley posters, a distortion of police records. In truth, as a seventeen-year-old I had shimmied up a lamppost at midnight to attach a poster for an anti-machine candidate. When a police officer learned I was working against the machine, he escorted me home and cited me for violating the 11 p.m. curfew for young people that had been imposed after the disturbances during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Was preparing that file for Byrne’s later use the best our spy could do? Our family and friends apparently gave him nothing else to work with. “Met the Alter son today. He told me why the Cubs would win the pennant this year,” I imagined him writing in his reports.

These undercover assignments—then and now—are offensive to the public but sweet for the public employees lucky enough to land them. They get to leave the office and pretend to derring-do even if they’re still just writing the same old boring memos about nothing. We’re becoming a government of Maytag repairmen, the rueful characters in the old TV ads waiting to repair the washing machine that never breaks.

Screening time

Obama and my mother first knew each other in the 1980s. He was a community organizer fighting a South Side sewage treatment plant; she was a commissioner of the Metropolitan Sanitary District—an elected position in Cook County—who instructed her secretary not to screen calls from constituents, including twentysomething rabble-rousers. Can you imagine anyone—even the lowliest officeholder or manager—who would do that today? The closest equivalent is when high-ranking officials—including Obama himself during natural disasters—give those with direct responsibility a personal cell phone number.

Question time

It’s Obama’s fault—not his staff’s—that he has had so much trouble with Congress. He didn’t try to reimagine the relationship. During the 2008 campaign, John McCain had the terrific idea of adopting a British “Question Time” tradition, whereby the president would go to the Hill on a regular basis and answer questions. In his first month in office, I asked Obama if he would do the same. He said he was thinking about it. Early on, he held a town hall meeting with Republican lawmakers in Baltimore and another roundtable on health care. But they were one-offs, and easily avoided thereafter by Republicans who felt the president was benefiting too much from them. Had Obama decided to create a new institution by venturing into the well of the House every month to answer questions, Republicans even now would feel obliged to show up. It would have been good theater, but also good for the country.

Stupid gun thief tricks

I was on a jury recently in Newark. It was a gun possession case, and I learned a couple of things. The head of the police crime lab testified that in 95 percent of cases involving handguns, his team cannot lift fingerprints. That’s because so many brands of handgun now have rough surfaces, even on the barrel. Could it be that gunmakers have intentionally made it easier for some of their best customers and the people who steal from them to avoid jail time?

On the other hand, the lab chief also testified that the efforts of the defendant in our case (or whomever he got the gun from) and many other criminals to scratch out the serial numbers on guns are a colossal waste of time. Nowadays there’s a special solvent that in almost every case restores the legibility of the serial number. Our defendant faced stiffer penalties for the futile defacement. In the end, he was convicted based on the cop’s testimony, but the case would have benefited greatly from another technological advancement—a body camera.

Obama has asked Congress for $75 million for body cameras for police. Even if he gets it (and he should use Sean Hannity’s support in his argument), that’s enough for only 50,000 cameras in a universe of 765,000 police officers nationwide. To bridge that, Obama should set a date (2020?) for every police officer having one, and the press should make it a top-tier issue and ask all politicians where they stand on meeting it. We also need a bill to require independent prosecutors in cases of police shootings, where local prosecutors who routinely depend on the police face a conflict of interest in prosecuting them. These reforms would go a long way toward healing our post-Ferguson divides.

Every teacher a guidance counselor

My wife occasionally tells me to get off my high horse at the door. I especially try her patience at dinner parties when I start in once again on how Diane Ravitch is distorting the education reform debate. It’s not that Emily disagrees, but she’s relieved when I occasionally change themes. My latest educational obsession, now trying the patience of a couple of community college presidents I know, is student guidance.

To me the pathetic state of student guidance is shrinking the middle class. Why? Because you can’t get into the middle class nowadays without some post-secondary training, and you can’t get that without at least some guidance.

A teacher I met recently said that her Philadelphia high school had three guidance counselors for 1,600 students, until two of them were laid off. No wonder the school has a 40 percent dropout rate. The counselor-student ratios—and the dropout rates—are even worse at most community colleges, where the overall graduation rate (measured after six years from entrance) is a pathetic 25 percent. The rest leave college with little to nothing to show for their debt.

While family and financial concerns are the biggest contributors to high dropout rates, experts I’ve interviewed say that a lot more advisers would help greatly by giving schools early warning on academic and other problems that leave students slipping through the cracks. The answer for public high schools and colleges is simple: replicate what many private institutions do by making all employees—including adjuncts, coaches, and secretaries—serve as advisers to at least a few students each. These advisers need only a little training because they refer students to the relevant administrators and professional guidance counselors when necessary. This would give students an adult other than an over-burdened classroom teacher to help them navigate the system and their often tangled lives.

This isn’t rocket science: being an adviser ought to be part—an extremely important part—of everyone’s job at a school. But both high schools and colleges have been surprisingly slow to make that happen, in part because the unions that represent teachers and guidance counselors usually object.

Re-masticating the news

I have a simple explanation for why the business model of good journalism has collapsed: talk is cheap, and reporting is expensive. It’s a lot cheaper to aggregate, re-masticate, and pontificate than to send reporters in the field to dig.

Sitting shiva with Obama

I first met Obama in early 2002. He came to pay his respects at my cousin’s house when we were sitting shiva after my aunt’s funeral. He had just been crushed by Representative Bobby Rush in a House race and was now planning to run for the U.S. Senate. I vaguely remember telling him he had chutzpah. This was only a few months after 9/11, and I later learned that he was already being told by at least one consultant that “Obama” and “Osama” were too easily confused by voters and he shouldn’t run.

Then, and later, he listened to all the advice, reflected on it, and made his own decisions without much sign that he had been persuaded by anyone. It’s why all the stories about how influential Valerie Jarrett is or why he needs a new team in the White House miss the point. The identities and policy views of his advisers don’t matter as much as they did for more suggestible presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Obama did listen to some advice. After he was told that he was a boring public speaker, he began methodically studying good ones, especially in black churches. He liked his newfound power to connect emotionally with audiences, but the rational part of him was leery of it. He gave a subdued inaugural address in 2009 partly in order to lower the wildly inflated expectations of him. This made some sense, but he took Mario Cuomo’s dictum about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose too far. He developed an allergy to sound bites, not recognizing that they had been important tools of leadership for Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, and other presidents.

It’s probably too late to bring back the campaign poetry, but there’s still time for him to inhabit a more theatrical role that uses humor, surprises, and dramatic confrontation. If it feels fake, he should remember that the presidency has always been a theater, from George Washington’s brilliant posture on his own high horse, to FDR’s description of himself as the second-best actor in America (after Orson Welles), to Ronald Reagan’s mastery of the stage, which helped him “change the trajectory of American politics” more than Obama realized when he made that observation in 2008.

Obama’s eighteen-and-a-half-month gap

Of course, that’s what drama coaches—Mike Deaver for Reagan, Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason for Clinton—are for. If Obama had been more theatrical during the arguments over health care, he would have downplayed all the arid talk about the “cost curve,” “affordability,” and even “preexisting conditions.” A more moral appeal (e.g., “We are ending discrimination against sick people in our time”) might not have transformed the debate, but it would have helped convey the historic nature of this legislation.

Had he sold both the stimulus and Obamacare better, Obama might have been spared the revisionism of Chuck Schumer, who said in a November 25 speech that by focusing on health care, Obama and Democrats “blew the opportunity” voters gave them to do more for the middle class. Schumer, who should know better, has his timing off. After the enormous $787 billion Recovery Act was signed in early 2009, there was zero appetite in Congress for more stimulus that year. That left time for the ACA debate.

Obama’s mistake wasn’t in pushing health care reform in 2009—it was then or never for the biggest progressive priority in seventy-five years. His mistake was in failing to pivot back to the economy after signing the ACA in March of 2010. Instead, beset by the BP oil spill and other problems, he didn’t propose anything on the economy before the disastrous 2010 midterms (when unemployment was 10 percent, the biggest reason for the shellacking). Then—outmaneuvered by deficit hawks—he waited all the way until the fall of 2011 before proposing the American Jobs Act. Remember the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap on Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes? It was Obama’s eighteen-and-a-half-month gap—not health care reform—that caused the president to lose his connection to the public on the economy.

But let’s keep things in perspective. “Everyone wanted Michael Jordan, right?” Chris Rock told Frank Rich in New York magazine, explaining why he still likes Obama. “We got Shaq. That’s not a disappointment.”

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and two about Barack Obama.