Author John Heilemann has known President Barack Obama for more than two decades, meeting as students at Harvard.
“Obama ran an extraordinary campaign in 2008, receiving 53% of the vote and attracting new, independent, and Republican voters,” Heilemann said during Monday’s Opening General Session. “He seemed to be on the verge of changing the office in a major way.”
Yet he was repudiated with last November’s Democratic losses in the midterm elections. Could Obama, Heilemann wondered, engineer a midcourse correction?
Many of the wounds Heilemann identified in the Obama administration’s first two years were self-inflicted. “He governed in a partisan way,” he said, taking on the persona of a big-spending liberal. He also “lost the thread” and thus, lost the country, despite passing big pieces of legislation like health-care reform.
In Heilemann’s view, Obama has pivoted quickly and more adroitly than Clinton did after his midterm losses. He says Obama recognized that he was too insular so he brought in advisers from outside his comfort zone. He’s becoming more strategic and less tactical. “It’s shocking what better position he’s in now than just three or four months ago,” said Heilemann.
But Obama’s greatest vulnerability is that he doesn’t have a good understanding of the business climate, said Mark Halperin, co-author with Heilemann of “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, Palin and McCain, and the Race of a Lifetime.” Republicans continue to talk about the size of government, and the health-care reform law—and are being pressured to continue to oppose everything up to the next election.
The two sides could move forward on so many issues—trade agreements, energy, immigration, for example—if it weren’t for the politics, Halperin said. “Obama knows he can’t pass anything through the House without the support of Republicans. Can he keep his bipartisan muscles working?”
A prediction on the 2012 presidential race? It’s the “weakest field” the Republicans have had in years, Halperin said. “No one can give a speech or has the drive that Obama does.” But he said look for names like Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich, Romney, Pawlenty, and Barbour to come forward.