Politics & Policy

The Secret Obama

In the 2012 campaign, the president hid his progressive agenda. But he wasn’t happy about it.

President Obama’s harshest critics believe that he has always been hiding something. They believe that he is even further left than he has governed. They believe that he has kept himself under wraps to avoid running afoul of American political realities.

They might be surprised to learn that none other than the president of the United States agrees with them. The evidence for this is in the latest campaign book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of Game Change and the sequel about 2012, Double Down.

In the fall of 2011, they recount, “All too often, Obama felt as if he were driving with his foot on the brake.”

In a strategy meeting with his political advisers, Obama brought up climate change as an example of his undue caution. According to Halperin and Heilemann, the president said: “Maybe I should just come out and say what I really feel about this. Maybe I should just go out and say what I think about everything.”

Longtime adviser Robert Gibbs noted maps showing how he could struggle to get to 270 electoral votes, and he quipped, “Well, Mr. President, I don’t really see a Bulworth scenario in here.”

Nonetheless, it was decided that the president would come back to the next meeting with a list of issues he wanted to be bolder and more forthright about. At that session, he brought to the Roosevelt Room a stack of pages from a yellow legal pad on which he had scrawled his more heartfelt initiatives.

What were they? Climate change. “We’re never gonna outdrill the other guys,” he said. “We gotta take some risks on this issue.”

Immigration reform. His Latino allies were right that he had been too timid.

Poverty. He needed to do more.

Peace between “Israel and Palestine.” He had let politics get in the way of working toward a settlement.

Closing Gitmo. Again, he hadn’t tried hard enough. “No one is gonna persuade me that we should run a penal colony in perpetuity in America,” he said.

Gay marriage. He didn’t want to keep dissembling about his real position.

“Taken in sum, Obama’s list was a revealing document,” Halperin and Heilemann write. “He believed that over the past three years his progressive impulses had too often been trumped by the demands of pragmatism. That he had trimmed his sails in just the way his critics on the left had charged.”

Some of the aides thought Obama was sketching out a rough second-term agenda, but Chief of Staff Bill Daley had a different thought, according to the authors: “Holy sh**. We have a bunch of leakers here. I hope to God this doesn’t get out.”

As it turned out, it would all be kept under wraps except gay marriage, on which the president was preempted by Vice President Biden, although he had planned to announce the completion of his “evolution” on this issue anyway.

The president ran an almost entirely empty campaign based on attacking Mitt Romney, so much so that it bothered even the president.

Halperin and Heilemann describe in detail President Obama’s debate prep following the disaster in Denver. After one particularly awful practice session, Obama’s advisers staged an intervention, frankly telling him how poorly he was doing.

Obama admitted he was struggling. He said it was because he was a lawyer and had a natural tendency to over-explain, but that it also came from the vapidity of his own campaign. Halperin and Heilemann call it “Obama’s despair about his lack of an agenda.”

“You keep telling me I can’t spend too much time defending my record and that I should talk about my plans,” the president said, in Halperin and Heilemann’s paraphrase. “But my plans aren’t anything like the plans I ran on in 2008. I had a universal health-care plan then. Now I’ve got . . . what? A manufacturing plan? What am I gonna do on education? What am I gonna do on energy? There’s not much there.”

David Plouffe, protesting too much, tried to buck him up: “You do have an agenda, goddammit!”

Not the agenda he believed in and wanted to declare to the world. That was muted or obscured entirely. It was too risky to let the real Obama show.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.


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