Obama Gets Messages From Democrats. Will He Listen?

President Obama purses lips

President Obama at his post-Election Day news conference. Charles Dharapak/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Democratic Party soul-searching as well as the blame game are running at full throttle with Democrats dissecting President Obama's real and perceived weaknesses and offering copious advice.

As typically happens in Washington, one way a president's critics send their messages that he must shake up his staff and his approach is via news media.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on Morning Edition about how some Democrats shared with him their worries that the president is pulling up the drawbridge and hunkering down inside Fortress Obama. He's doing that, they say, by turning to insiders to replace other insiders exiting his administration.

Critics suggest the president would be much better off bringing in outsiders who could help dispel White House groupthink.

Ari provides a series of examples where the president replaced a departing aide with an insider, like Rahm Emanuel's replacement by Peter Rouse as chief of staff.

An excerpt from the web version of Ari's report:

That tendency also seemed to be at play when Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer replaced his former boss, Communications Director Anita Dunn, and when Obama presidential campaign lawyer Bob Bauer took the place of outgoing White House Counsel Greg Craig. Soon, presidential adviser David Axelrod is expected to leave the White House to run Obama's re-election campaign, and the names most frequently mentioned to be Axelrod's successor are White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe.

"The single most important job qualification in a position at this level is: Would you do what I, the president, would do if I had the time to do it?" Raben says.

Knowing what the president would do means understanding what goes on in the president's head, which cannot be expected of outsiders. But an inner circle that understands the president's internal monologue may also share his blind spots. As one very plugged in and slightly exasperated Democratic outsider put it, this president is "heavily enabled."

Many prominent Democrats outside of the White House share this concern, but most would not speak on the record for fear of burning bridges. Particularly after a midterm that Obama described as a "shellacking," many believe that the White House needs new voices and new ideas. The perception is that everyone in the president's inner circle is on the same page — which is not necessarily a good thing.

Meanwhile, Politico has an informative Mike Allen-Jim Vandehei piece that dovetails well with Ari's. Its theme is that the president and his aides aren't attending to the kind of political details White Houses ignore at their political peril.

The criticisms range from the president not paying enough attention to the party infrastructure in the states or to the niceties of making supporters and even opponents feel special.

If a president expects his partisans to walk through walls for him or hopes to disarm some political enemies, there are just some things that have to be done, according to those in the story who, again, are obviously trying to send a message to the president.

Here's an excerpt from the story with examples of how presidents can needlessly hurt themselves when they and their aides don't sweat the political details:

When Obama was giving the commencement address in the University of Michigan’s “Big House” stadium last May, he mingled in the home-team locker room with university deans and regents. Across the tunnel, in the visitor’s locker room, several members of Michigan’s Democratic congressional delegation — including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. — waited patiently.

Some had brought grandchildren so they could get their picture taken with the president. But they never got to see him. Obama didn’t cross the tunnel to see the lawmakers.

— In June, during an East Room reception for top supporters at Ford’s Theatre, several of the attendees were disappointed that they didn’t get to shake the president’s hand and take a photo, as they had in the past. Instead, Obama greeted a few people down front, reaching over a rope line.

“People thought they were going to a reception with the president, not a campaign event,” one attendee recalled.

As Allen and Vandehei suggest, these sorts of things may seem embarrassingly trivial and not worth noting. But arguably it's these small interactions that help shape the larger narrative that a president either cares about people or that he doesn't.

It makes it harder for the president's allies to deliver a strong case that he really cares about people when they themselves feel the president didn't care enough about them. Or their grandchildren.

This is one of those areas where a politician with time served as a mayor or a governor may have an advantage. They do politics on such a retail level so constantly, they get the importance of these kinds of micro interactions and of paying attention to details. That the president lacks that kind of resume may be in part what accounts for the oversights.

Whatever the case, the messages are clearly being sent to the White House. Of course, not all of them hold equal weight or are worth listening to.

But clearly some must be. And how the White House responds to the important advice could dictate how easy or hard it is for the president to make a political comeback, if he makes one at all.

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