Obama Is Wrong: He Made Change from the Inside

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Olivier Douliery / EPA

A plane takes off from Reagan National Airport as President Obama gives a speech

Barack Obama campaigned as a change-the-system outsider, but he has governed as a work-the-system insider. There’s no shame in that. But that’s what made his comment about how change doesn’t happen from the inside so annoying. Obama made his inside strategy clear immediately after his election when he announced that his chief of staff would be Rahm Emanuel, the ultimate get-it-done dealmaker, the antithesis of postpartisan statesmanship. In 2011, I asked Emanuel what he thought of Obama’s lofty rhetoric about changing Washington in 2008.

“Look, I don’t really know,” he said with a smirk. “I come from Chicago.”

So does Obama, and while he’s in some ways an anti-Emanuel — conciliatory rather than confrontational, cool rather than volcanic — he knew he needed an Emanuel to move his agenda, because bills that don’t pass Congress don’t make change. In my new book, The New New Deal, I tell the story of how Emanuel drove Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package through Capitol Hill, and it’s not a pretty story. It involved a lot of screaming and naughty words, plus a few unsavory deals. But by the time Emanuel was done calling House Appropriations Chairman David Obey a bleep and the Blue Dog Democrats motherbleeps and then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter a bleeping bleep, he and Vice President Joe Biden managed to round up the votes to pass the bill.

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That stimulus bill was all about change. It poured $90 billion into clean energy when we were spending just a few billion a year, launching a quiet green revolution; it provided a down payment on health reform that will drag our pen-and-paper medical system into the digital age. It also included Race to the Top, the most ambitious federal education reform in decades; the largest infrastructure investments since Eisenhower, including a new high-speed rail initiative; the largest middle-class tax cuts since Reagan; the largest onetime research investments ever; and much more. It even helped change Washington — not politically, but bureaucratically, with unprecedented transparency and oversight, and by distributing federal dollars through competition rather than check-the-box entitlement grants. Oh, and the stimulus also helped prevent a depression. It is one of the most important and least understood pieces of legislation in history.

But the change it produced did not come from outside Washington. During an economic emergency, it made sense to focus more on changing the country than changing the capital. And Obama played a similar inside game to pass Obamacare, because he needed 60 votes in the Senate, and again to pass Wall Street reform; that quest for 60 has defined the arc of his presidency, forcing him to align his ambitions with the whims of a few swing Senators. But while he may not have kept his promises to change American politics, he has kept his promises to change America’s policies. His by-any-means-necessary approach has sometimes taken a political toll, producing backroom deals like the infamous “Cornhusker kickback,” but it’s gotten a lot done. It has advanced his agenda. It is changing lives. As Seth Meyers joked on Saturday Night Live: “We can’t change it. That’s why we sent you!”

Clearly, though, Obama feels embarrassed about the gap between his lofty campaign rhetoric and his down-and-dirty legislative strategy. “Come on, man, he was pure!” Emanuel cackled during our interview. “It was his chief of staff who was the whore!” It’s hard to imagine that Obama actually believes that, but even if he doesn’t, it’s disappointing to see him pretend that the inside game can’t produce change.

It can. He proved it.