FT.com / Global insight - Fighting spirit returns to the White House: At the end of last week, Barack Obama recaptured some of the fight that so animated his general election campaign when he slipped out of Washington to meet voters in Ohio.
The speech, in which he promised to renew the battle against the lobby groups that he admitted had made an “ugly” spectacle of his healthcare reform bill and were opposing much of his Wall Street re-regulation package, offered us a reminder of the man who inspired volunteers in their millions in the build-up to his election.
Perhaps it was no coincidence, therefore, that on the same day Mr Obama appointed David Plouffe, his election manager, to act as his adviser on the forthcoming 2010 election battle and to help fix a White House message machine that has clearly lost the plot. Mr Plouffe, who was the only campaign operative Mr Obama singled out for praise in his soaring victory speech in Chicago, had originally been tipped as a White House chief of staff.
That job went instead to Rahm Emanuel, the leading Democratic pugilist in the House of Representatives, who oversaw the Democratic victory in the 2006 mid-term elections that helped prepare the ground for the across-the-board victory in 2008.
All that seems like a very long time ago. As the voters of Massachusetts reminded Mr Obama last week, nobody is making assumptions any longer about a fresh alignment in US politics.
White House officials were careful over the weekend to present Mr Plouffe, who will work as an outside adviser to the White House, as an addition to the team, rather than a replacement for anyone in particular. Yet the timing of Mr Plouffe’s return also underlines how far Mr Obama has strayed from the narrative of change that struck such a chord with Americans on the campaign trail.
One measure of how badly Mr Obama’s team lapsed was its failure to see the Massachusetts train wreck until it was too late to do anything about it. Another, directly related, element was the decision to shunt Mr Obama’s vast wagon-load of campaign supporters into a forgotten siding called Organising for America.
Instead of using his database of 13m grassroots supporters to pressure recalcitrant Democrats to enact healthcare, they were left out to pasture. Some, according to post-poll surveys, even voted for the Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts last week.
In short, Mr Obama was swept into office promising to change the way business was done in Washington and ended up epitomising – or, at least, appearing to epitomise – how Washington normally goes about its business. Voters, being smarter than Beltway insiders, rapidly sensed they had been misled. It will be part of Mr Plouffe’s brief to help persuade them otherwise.
“Let’s remember how we won in 2008 and deliver on our promise,” Mr Plouffe wrote in the Washington Post.
Delivering on that promise is far more difficult now that it would have been 12 months ago had Mr Obama started out with a more sceptical posture towards his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill.
It may also be too late to salvage healthcare reform from last week’s train wreck. But it is not too late to wrest a respectable result at the mid-term elections in November – one that would minimise Democratic losses and give Mr Obama renewed momentum to achieve difficult reforms before he seeks re-election in 2012.
The president should launch Obama 2.0 on Wednesday night in his State of the Union Address to Congress in which he should also promise to take on special interests and actually mean it – particularly within his own party.
Mr Plouffe built a movement that was independent of the Democratic party. This week, Mr Obama should belatedly bring it back into action.