Jim Messina, Obama's Enforcer
In March 2009 the Campaign for America’s Future, a top progressive group in Washington, launched a campaign called “Dog The (Blue) Dogs” to pressure conservative Blue Dog Democrats to support President Obama’s budget. When he heard about the effort, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who was regarded as the Obama administration’s designated “fixer,” called CAF’s leaders into the White House for a dressing down, according to a CAF official. If the group wanted to join the Common Purpose Project, an exclusive weekly strategy meeting between progressive groups and administration officials, CAF had to drop the campaign. We know how to handle the Blue Dogs better than you do, Messina said. Not wanting to sour its relationship with the White House at this early date, CAF complied, and the campaign quickly disappeared from its website. Despite Messina’s assurance, however, the Blue Dogs would remain a major obstacle to the realization of the president’s legislative agenda.
The hardball tactics used by Messina against CAF exemplified how the Obama administration would operate going forward—insistent on demanding total control, hostile to any public pressure from progressives on dissident Democrats or administration allies, committed to working the system inside Washington rather than changing it. As deputy chief of staff, Messina held the same position once occupied by Karl Rove (and Josh Lyman on The West Wing). He worked as a top lieutenant for Rahm Emanuel and became the administration’s lead enforcer after Emanuel left for Chicago. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer calls Messina “the most powerful person in Washington that you haven’t heard of.” Messina’s dream job was to become chief of staff. Instead, he recently got an arguably more important assignment—manager of Obama’s re-election campaign.
Messina, a longtime aide to Montana Senator Max Baucus, entered Obamaworld in June 2008 as the campaign’s chief of staff. He had impressed Democrats by leading the effort in the Senate to oppose the Bush administration’s push to privatize Social Security and quickly won the trust of campaign manager David Plouffe, who put Messina in charge of day-to-day operations. “I spend the money, so everything’s gotta go through me to get spent, which is the best job ever,” Messina told The New Yorker. “It’s like getting the keys to a fucking Ferrari.” (Messina has been spotted driving a black Porsche convertible in Washington.)
Unlike Plouffe, who became a revered figure among Obama supporters, Messina begins the re-election campaign with a significant amount of baggage. As a former chief of staff to Baucus and deputy to Emanuel, Messina has clashed with progressive activists and grassroots Obama supporters both inside and outside Washington over political strategy and on issues like healthcare reform and gay rights, alienating parts of the very constituencies that worked so hard for Obama in 2008 and that the campaign needs to reinspire and activate in 2012. Obama’s fixer has arguably created as many problems as he’s solved. “He is not of the Obama movement,” says one top Democratic strategist in Washington. “There is not a bone in his body that speaks to or comprehends the idea of a movement and that grassroots energy. To me, that’s bothersome.”
Messina’s allies say he’s a savvy, experienced operative who played a key role in the passage of Obama’s legislative agenda, and is well prepared to lead a tough campaign for the president. “Jim was tasked with bringing together various parts of the progressive community to unite behind the president’s historic agenda—affordable, accessible healthcare for all Americans, repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and ending the war in Iraq, among other priorities,” says Hari Sevugan, a Democratic Party spokesman. “Despite their differences, he rallied that coalition behind the president’s agenda and played a critical role in making these common goals a reality. It’s exactly this ability to get things done, along with his deep relationships with grassroots leaders, activists and members of Congress, which will make Jim a strong leader for the president’s re-election effort.” But other Democrats interviewed for this article, who have dealt with Messina in the past, questioned whether he’s the right man for the job, and what his elevation says about the kind of re-election campaign Obama plans to run. (Some declined to speak on the record for fear of retribution.)
Under Messina, Obama ‘12 could more closely resemble the electoral strategy of Baucus or Bill and Hillary Clinton—cautious, controlling, top-down in structure and devoted to small-bore issues that blur differences between the parties—than Obama ‘08, a grassroots effort on a scale modern politics had never seen. “It was a major harbinger to me, when Obama hired him, that we were not going to get ‘change we can believe in,’” says Ken Toole, a former Democratic state senator and public service commissioner in Montana. “Messina has a lot of talents, but he’s extremely conservative in his views on how to do politics. He’s got a tried-and-true triangulation methodology, and that’s never gonna change.” The Democratic National Committee declined to make Messina available for an interview.
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At the beginning of the healthcare debate in 2009, many Democrats were justifiably concerned about the role that Baucus, chair of the powerful Finance Committee, would play in shepherding the Obama administration’s domestic policy priority through the Senate. Baucus had brokered the passage of George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts and 2003 Medicare prescription drug plan, and had spent the better part of the Bush presidency cutting deals with Republicans and infuriating fellow Democrats. Other transgressions included voting for the war in Iraq, the energy bill, the bankruptcy bill and to confirm Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Among Senate Democrats, only Nebraska’s Ben Nelson had a more conservative voting record on economic issues than Baucus. Moreover, Baucus accepted the most special-interest money of any senator between 1999 and 2005, and had at least two dozen staffers working as lobbyists on K Street, including for healthcare companies adamantly opposed to reform.
Despite these obvious warning signs, Messina emerged as the leading advocate for his old boss during the healthcare debate and the top administration conduit to his office. “He is perfectly positioned to do this,” Messina told the New York Times in June 2009. Messina told the Washington Post he regarded Baucus as a father figure. “Messina will freely tell you that everything he knows, he learned from Baucus,” says Eric Feaver, president of the Montana teachers union.
The administration gave Baucus and his handpicked “gang of six” senators nearly unlimited time to secretly craft a bill, which proved to be one of its most glaring strategic missteps during the healthcare debate. “Some of the difficulty that healthcare is in today is Max’s fault,” says former Montana Democratic Congressman Pat Williams. “He took too long, he tried to satisfy too many—including people that were going to vote against it from the onset—and he gave the opposition time to regroup. That was a bad political decision on his part, and many people out here believe, rightly or wrongly, that Messina was part of that foot-dragging and vacillation.”
The administration deputized Messina as the top liaison to the Common Purpose Project. The coveted invite-only, off-the-record Tuesday meetings at the Capitol Hilton became the premier forum where the administration briefed leading progressive groups, including organizations like the AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress, on its legislative and political strategy. Theoretically, the meetings were supposed to provide a candid back-and-forth between outside groups and administration officials, but Messina tightly controlled the discussions and dictated the terms of debate (Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake memorably dubbed this the “veal pen”). “Common Purpose didn’t make a move without talking to Jim,” says one progressive strategist. During the healthcare fight, Messina used his influence to try to stifle any criticism of Baucus or lobbying by progressive groups that was out of sync with the administration’s agenda, according to Common Purpose participants. “Messina wouldn’t tolerate us trying to lobby to improve the bill,” says Richard Kirsch, former national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the major coalition of progressive groups backing reform. Kirsch recalled being told by a White House insider that when asked what the administration’s “inside/outside strategy” was for passing healthcare reform, Messina replied, “There is no outside strategy.”
The inside strategy pursued by Messina, relying on industry lobbyists and senior legislators to advance the bill, was directly counter to the promise of the 2008 Obama campaign, which talked endlessly about mobilizing grassroots support to bring fundamental change to Washington. But that wasn’t Messina’s style—instead, he spearheaded the administration’s deals with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, particularly the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), one of the most egregious aspects of the bill. “They cared more about their relationship with the healthcare industry than anyone else,” says one former HCAN staffer. “It was shocking to see. To me, that was the scariest part of it, because this White House had ridden in on a white horse and said, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore.’” When they were negotiating special deals with industry, Messina and Baucus chief of staff Jon Selib were also pushing major healthcare companies and trade associations to pour millions of dollars into TV ads defending the bill. (Messina did have allies in the progressive community. Jon Youngdahl, chief of staff at the SEIU, praised him for the “ability to pull together progressives with diverse points of view” on healthcare, while Democratic strategist Robert Creamer noted that “Messina’s mission was to get something passed.”)
Messina was adamant about shielding Baucus from any public pressure, whether it be concerns over the absence of a public option in the Finance Committee bill or his fruitless negotiations with GOP senators, Kirsch says. “The aggressive suppression of outside pressure was done by Messina,” he adds. “I can’t imagine that the president knew about it.” Messina and his allies tried to stop HCAN from sending a letter to senators expressing displeasure with Baucus’s bill and also tried to prevent the group from running a TV ad praising the House version of the bill. HCAN’s organizer in Montana, Molly Moody, was banned from Baucus’s office and prevented from attending his public events. (Baucus’s office did not reply to a request for comment.) “This is something Messina did in Montana—any group that did any outside pressure on Baucus was iced out,” says Kirsch. “He did the same thing with HCAN in the White House.” When he worked for Baucus, Messina even kept a list of his political enemies on an Excel spreadsheet. “Ultra-paranoid behavior is very much a hallmark of Messina,” says Ken Toole.
The administration’s aversion to popular mobilization on behalf of healthcare reform, either by progressive groups or the Obama-aligned Organizing for America (OFA), backfired spectacularly when Tea Party activists organized against the bill in the summer of 2009, catching Democrats off guard. Ever since then, the White House, despite the bill’s eventual passage, has largely been playing defense on healthcare. Says one Democratic operative of Messina: “I hope he’s better at political campaigns than at managing big, important pieces of legislation.”