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Ex-DNC Chief on Obama's Problems (and How He Can Fix Them)

5 years ago
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An entrenched group of Senate Democrats and a staff that lacks governing experience is undermining President Obama's power, says former Democratic National Committee Executive Director Brian Lunde.

Take Obama's initiative to overhaul health care, he says.

Obama "outsourced his health care policy, deferred to the congressional wing -- and now it's his. And he's now trying to sell something that wasn't his," says Lunde.

Lunde knows the insiders as well as anyone. As executive director at the DNC, he mentored a young Rahm Emanuel. As campaign manager to Paul Simon's presidential campaign, he hired David Axelrod as media adviser. He was also close with White House Communications Director Anita Dunn; the two worked together in 1981 to organize a breakfast club for new Democrats. Though he considers himself a Democratic Leadership Council "Blue Dog" Democrat, Lunde angered many Democrats when he supported George W. Bush for president.

Lunde calls Obama's dream team "the best team of communications professionals ever," but he equates Obama's recent problems to another issue: "If the public isn't buying what you're selling, it doesn't matter. Bad policy cannot be changed by good communications techniques."

And Lunde believes Obama's reliance on top Democratic political operatives to staff his White House has been a costly mistake. "These are level-headed, well-grounded people, but they are truly modern campaign consultants. I don't know if I would ask them to help me govern." On Obama's chief adviser, he says, "Axelrod is a publicity agent. He's a great positioning guy. And he's an incredible guy -- great sense of humor. But I don't think he cares that much about the details of legislative policy making."

But while Lunde believes some of Obama's problems are due to his staff, he thinks the majority of the blame belongs to Democrats in Congress. He notes that the worst thing that happened is that Democrats captured Congress two years before Obama was elected. And he also believes Obama's brief time in the U.S. Senate, and his apparent lack of interest in policy, convinced Democratic senators they could roll him.

"The Democratic congressional wing does not respect President Obama in the area of policy making," he says.

Lunde believes Republicans under Ronald Reagan got the memo, whereas Democrats in Congress still think they are running the show: "When you win the presidency, you just have to become the presidential party," he says.

Citing Carter and even Clinton, Lunde says Democrats are especially susceptible to falling prey to this congressional hegemony. He believes this goes back to their having dominated Congress for 40 years. While presidents came and went, they remained in control for generations.

"So many of the people in Congress right now are Watergate babies," meaning these Democrats were swept into office in 1974. "They are now sub-committee and committee chairs, and you're just not going to tell them what to do. You can't tell Waxman and Markey, 'Don't do this.' They don't care what Obama thinks. It's their time. It's their day," he says.

According to Lunde, Democrats in Congress misread Obama's "change" message. "The word 'change' means different things to a voter and to Henry Waxman. It's not radical policy American's were looking for, it's a breath of fresh air."

But Lunde doesn't think Obama's future is hopeless. He tells me Obama can turn things around in September if he "stiff-arms" Congress and triangulates with the Blue Dogs and Republicans.

Lunde believes Obama has made a strategic mistake by starting with the House, which he says has a "Hollywood and Harvard" mentality. Instead, "you've got to abandon it and begin working with that moderate coalition in the Senate." Lunde suggests Obama could win politically by abandoning liberal attempts at sweeping health care reform, and instead, insist insurance companies no longer be allowed to deny insurance based on pre-existing conditions.

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