Over the weekend, “senior officials” in Democratic circles told Politico that President Obama is thinking of putting current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in charge of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) going into the 2012 campaign. The White House quickly shot down the rumor and it’s highly unlikely that would happen, as current DNC chair Tim Kaine’s term lasts until after 2012. Yet it’s indicative of the mindset inside Obamaworld that Gibbs is even being considered or floated for the job.
Moving Gibbs to the DNC is a terrible idea. He’s a communications honcho; not an inspirational party leader. The last thing President Obama needs is to elevate yet another inside-the-Beltway operative, let alone one who recently needlessly insulted the “professional left.” Gibbs has no relationships with the local leaders and activists who form the base of the party and the DNC.
In fact, Obama should be looking for just the opposite, someone with credibility and stature among the party’s rank-and-file base, which has often been stifled by the White House political operation. Someone like previous DNC Chair Howard Dean, who was beloved by grassroots activists but left the job after Obama’s election and was excluded from a top job in the administration by Rahm Emanuel. Dean left the DNC voluntarily—believing Obama needed his own man for the job after his term expired—and there’s no indication he’d want the job back.
Kaine has been an adequate DNC chair and, based on my reporting, seems to be well-liked by the state party chairs. The DNC is raising a good amount of money under his tenure and Obama’s post-campaign arm, Organizing for America, is starting to integrate better with existing Democratic Party institutions, though rough spots remain.
Yet the Obama inner circle is in need of a shakeup that goes beyond replacing Rahm. Installing Dean or someone like him at the DNC would signal that Obama is serious about recommitting himself to the kind of grassroots politics that defined his presidential campaign. Too often, the DNC and OFA have simply carried out whatever the White House wanted, to the chagrin of local activists who’d like to have more of a say in how Washington is run. That is, after all, what Obama promised when he ran for president. As I noted in a recent Nation excerpt from my new book, Herding Donkeys:
"I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said while campaigning in Colorado Springs in July 2008. "This won’t be a call issued in one speech or one program; I want this to be a central cause of my presidency." Only Obama entered the White House with millions of supporters who could theoretically be activated with the click of a mouse; they expected him, however naïvely, to follow through on his promise. "Our signs didn’t say, Status Quo ’08," remarked former top Obama adviser Paul Tewes.
Unfortunately, that White House dialogue has too often been one-sided: Here’s the policy. Go support it. "The White House began to believe that they could mobilize their supporters without hearing what their supporters really wanted in terms of specific change," Dean says. "The principal problem with OFA is the same one the president’s having. You can’t dictate to your base what’s going to happen. It’s got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn’t been."
As it stands, the Democratic base is restless, local party leaders are anxious and Democratic candidates are facing major losses in November. Bringing back Dean, an independent voice who can fight for the grassroots, wouldn’t right all of that, but it would show that Obama is serious about empowering a true team of rivals, not just a bunch of Washington insiders.