James Carville To Obama: Time To Get Tough And Fire Some People
James Carville has some advice for Barack Obama. It boils down to "be like Bill Clinton."
The always outspoken James Carville has some pointed advice for President Obama:
Democratic strategist James Carville thinks that President Obama should panic, fire, and fight–in that order.
In a column that appeared on CNN’s opinion pages on Thursday, Carville had some harsh words for the White House about how to take on the faltering economy and faith in the Democratic Party.
“This is what I would say to President Barack Obama: The time has come to demand a plan of action that requires a complete change from the direction you are headed,” Carville wrote.
He advised Obama to follow the precedent of former presidents–specifically, Ronald Reagan, who fired most of his campaign staff in 1980, and Bill Clinton, who fired many staff members in 1994–and fire lots of people. “For God’s sake, why are we still looking at the same political and economic advisers that got us into this mess?” Carville wrote. “It’s not working.”
Though I’m no fan of the President’s, I’ve had much the same thought myself for quite some time. At first, it seemed like the problems that the Administration was having were centered in the Communications Office, but even the changes that have taken place there haven’t led to any change in the rather astounding at times level of what I can only call incompetence emanating from the people primarily responsible for getting the President’s message out to the press and the public. Two changes of the Chief of Staff haven’t led to any real changes in how the Administration operates, either. That suggests that the problems aren’t on the operations side so much as they’re on the policy side, which makes sense because the one thing that has been constant in this Administration is an inability to even consider changing course on policy after it has been revealed not to work. Dave Schuler suggests some Cabinet level firings, specifically Eric Holder and Timothy Geithner. While I’d agree that both of these men ought to be long gone based on their records alone, the question then becomes who would replace them, and the fact remains that the same person will still be at the head of the table. Additionally, it may be too late at this point for the kind of mass firings that Carville suggests. Doing something like that now sends a signal of weakness that would likely harm the President going into the re-election cycle.
Carville also has some additional advice for the President in addition to the mass firings:
2. Indict people. There are certain people in American finance who haven’t been held responsible for utterly ruining the economic fabric of our country. Demand from the attorney general a clear status of the state of investigation concerning these extraordinary injustices imposed upon the American people. I know Attorney General Eric Holder is a close friend of yours, but if his explanations aren’t good, fire him too. Demand answers to why no one has been indicted.
Mr. President, people are livid. Tell people that you, too, are angry and sickened by the irresponsible actions on Wall Street that caused so much suffering. Do not accept excuses. Demand action now.
3. Make a case like a Democrat. While we are going along with the Republican austerity garbage, who is making the case against it? It’s not the Democrats!
We are allowing the over-educated, over-explanatory bureaucrat by the name of (Congresssional Budget Office director Douglas) Elmendorf do all the talking. Do not let him make your case. Let us make your case. Is it any wonder that we were doing better in the middle of the stimulus-spending period than we are doing with the austerity program?
4. Hold fast to an explanation. Stick to your rationale for what has happened and what is going to happen under your leadership. You must carry this through until the election (never say that things are improving because evidently they are not).
Walter Russell Mead isn’t at all convinced that Carville’s advice to double down on the progressive populism will work:
While left-liberal Democrats keep thinking it MUST work, left populism doesn’t even help Democratic candidates win Democratic nominations, much less general elections. The siren song of left populism has wrecked the hopes of every Democratic presidential candidate who listened to it for the last twenty years. Remember Dick Gephardt’s inspiring campaign for the Democratic nomination? And who can forget those halcyon years of the John Edwards administration?
Carville’s advice is contradictory. President Obama can’t be both populist and consistent at this point in his presidency. Larry Summers and Secretary Geithner didn’t sneak into the White House and hijack his economic policy while President Obama was off making friends in the Islamic world and solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. President Obama has made his key economic policy decisions out of conviction and calculation. He has billed himself as a reflective and cool decision maker who reviews the evidence before carefully making a decision. To make the 180 degree turn Carville wants, the President would have to have a Moses on the mountaintop, road to Damascus conversion experience. And to pull that off, he wouldn’t just have to reinvent his economic policy; he’d have to reinvent himself and reintroduce himself to the American people as a different kind of person and a different kind of leader.
Even if the President had fired his entire policy team months ago, he would’ve ended up hiring people that gave him the exact same advice as the first group because that’s the advice he wants to hear. He didn’t hire Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, or personally ask him to change his mind and stay until the end of the first term, on some whim. He did so because Geithner’s views matched Obama’s, and because Obama wanted to send a signal that his Administration would continue that Geithner had helped implement in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis from his position at the New York Fed. There’s been no sign in two and a half years of even the slightest gap between Obama’s views and Geithner’s. The same goes for the rest of the policy and political teams. People simply don’t undergo the kind of change that Carville wants from Obama, especially if they’ve never done it before in their political careers.
Mead also goes on to note that some of the advice that Carville gives would likely cause the rest of the world to panic:
Carville totally overlooks the dramatic and swift economic consequences if President Obama took his advice and fired his economic team, launched prosecutions against prominent bankers and Wall Streeters while barnstorming the country doing Huey Long impressions when world financial markets are already on edge.
The result would show Carville what real panic looks like as stock markets collapsed worldwide, business confidence crashed, and the global economy went into a recession that dwarfed what we saw in 2008. That recession wouldn’t be President Bush’s fault; it would be seen by voters as an avoidable economic catastrophe brought on by a President who went off the rails.
I can’t say that this is an unrealistic scenario. The world economy, and the financial markets are already on the brink, a signal that American economic policy is about to undergo some radical change, or even that the people who have been in charge of it are moving on, would likely cause traders to panic just as the odd pieces of news out of Europe seem to do on a daily basis. If that’s even a slight possibility, then taking Carville’s advice right now would be the height of irresponsibility.
In the end, I think what Carville really wants is for Barack Obama to be Bill Clinton, especially the Bill Clinton of 1995-96 who game back from the ashes of a devastating defeat in the mid-term elections, even more devastating than what Obama experienced in 2010, and ran rings around Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Republicans. Of course, Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. Clinton was a far more skilled politician, and it’s clear that his commitment to particular policy course was never as great as his commitment to his popularity and enhancing his political power. That’s why he was able to do things like sign welfare reform and the Defense Of Marriage Act into law, and accede to the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He was willing to sacrifice policy to succeed politically. Except in limited circumstances, it doesn’t seem that Barack Obama shares that ability. Barack Obama is who he is, it’s too late to change that, and Carville and his fellow Democrats, many of whom are already upset with the Administration, are just going to have to hope that it’s good enough.