Ray LaHood’s book is the latest from an administration insider to publicly air criticism of President Obama, after memoirs by Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, who each served as defense secretary.
When President Obama first won the White House, he recruited Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman, to join his Cabinet. The appointment, Obama said, “reflects that bipartisan spirit” that would distinguish his presidency.
Seven years later and now out of office, LaHood has concluded the opposite turned out to be true. Rather than reflecting the bipartisan spirit of the Obama presidency, LaHood said his appointment as secretary of transportation came to reflect its failure.
Despite the glowing words, Obama abandoned his promise to govern across the aisle, LaHood said in an interview. The only elected Republican in Obama’s original Cabinet, LaHood said the president never made a sustained effort to reach out and gave up too easily. As a result, he became isolated and reliant on a narrow group of like-minded advisers.
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That assessment from a man who served under Obama for four years punctuates LaHood’s new memoir, “Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics,” published by Cambria Press. While he expressed warm feelings toward Obama and approval of many of his policies, LaHood lamented the partisan fever that has characterized Obama’s time in office.
“I do not believe the White House ever committed fully to a genuine bipartisan approach to policymaking, despite the president’s words to the contrary,” LaHood wrote in the book.
While he said he believed Obama was sincere when he said he wanted bipartisanship, the president was hamstrung “by mistakes in judgment and political calculation that prevented cooperation between the political parties and sacrificed vision too easily for short-term gain.”
The book is the latest from an administration insider to publicly air criticism of Obama, after memoirs by Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, who each served as defense secretary. By the seventh year of an administration, such books become increasingly common, and the Obama administration had no comment about the latest Wednesday.
In the past, Obama’s aides have argued that his efforts to forge bipartisanship were genuine but were met with the back of the hand. Republicans, administration aides have said, opted for a deliberate strategy of obstruction across the board, pointing to a comment by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, before the 2010 midterm elections: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
LaHood, however, said Obama shared responsibility, too. “President Obama depended almost exclusively on a handful of folks situated in the White House,” he wrote. “He rarely sought counsel outside that group. He did not, as other presidents have done, place a high value on consulting with members of Congress.”
“As time passed,” LaHood added, “the president seemed to me to become more isolated, more insulated from those outside the in-group, less engaged with others.”
He did not let fellow Republicans off the hook. LaHood clearly felt disconnected from the “ideological rigidity” of his party’s new generation, people who “inhabit a different world from mine,” as he put it. “Many of them do not want Congress to pass bills. Any government action is, by their definition, bad for the country.”
That was never LaHood’s philosophy. LaHood was the proverbial politician from Peoria, elected to the House from Illinois in 1994 along with a wave of Republicans led by Newt Gingrich. The Lebanese-American son of parents who ran a working-class restaurant, LaHood believed in getting things done and was popular with friends on both sides of the aisle.
One of those friends was Rahm Emanuel, then a Democratic congressman from Illinois. When Obama was elected in 2008 and tapped Emanuel as his White House chief of staff, Emanuel helped bring LaHood into the Cabinet.
While Gates was held over from a Republican administration, LaHood was the only Republican in the first Cabinet who had been elected to public office. In his second term, Obama appointed former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as defense secretary, although he did not last long.
In the interview and the book, LaHood recounted his excitement at joining the new administration — and his quick disappointment at its gambits. In the interest of passing an economic-stimulus package quickly to counter the deep recession he inherited, Obama agreed to a strategy of allowing Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who then served as House speaker, to pass it without Republicans.
“I think they felt like they needed to push this through quickly to get the economy moving,” LaHood said in the interview. “And, boom, they made a decision that they were going to pass economic stimulus with just Democratic votes. That was the beginning of the end of bipartisanship.”
When Emanuel asked him to call 10 to 15 of his former Republican colleagues to lobby for the stimulus, LaHood said each complained of being shut out by Democrats. As a result, he refused to help anymore.
“I called Rahm and said, ‘This is mission impossible,’ ” he recounted in the book. “I stopped making calls. I did not expect Republicans to roll over and accept the president’s ambitious economic recovery agenda whole cloth.”
LaHood said that set the tone for the rest of Obama’s administration. “House Republicans deserve a fair amount of blame for the lock-step vote on stimulus,” he wrote, because they would not meet Obama halfway. But in handing the project over to Pelosi, he said, “The price we paid was incalculable.”
He added: “The White House had reached this decision without consulting me, the person they had selected to promote bipartisanship.”
Likewise, LaHood noted that Cabinet meetings were scripted affairs rather than opportunities for the president to hear from anyone other than his closest aides. Cabinet meetings were held infrequently and mainly to show off what the administration was already doing, not deliberate about what it should do. “It was all for show,” he said.
Obama will get a copy
In the interview, LaHood recalled a recent friendly visit with Obama on Air Force One when the president traveled to Chicago. “He was very positive,” LaHood recalled. “I think he was really feeling like he was living the dream. He’s not up for election. He can do what he wants to do, say what he wants to say.”
He said he did not discuss his critique with the president but that he would send him a copy of the book.
“Bipartisanship is in his DNA. I’m proof of it,” LaHood said. “But time and intervening circumstance didn’t allow him to do it in the way that he would have wanted to.”
And then there is LaHood’s old home, Congress, where the ruling Republicans are not the same as when he was there. He knows that firsthand. His son, Darin LaHood, was just elected to his old seat in a special election in September.
“He’s a lot more conservative than I am, which is OK,” the elder LaHood said. “He got elected. I didn’t. He’ll be a good member.”