Jim Messina, Obama's Enforcer

      President Obama meeting with senior White House staff. Individuals present (l-r): David Axelrod (Senior Advisor to the President), Jim Messina (Deputy White House Chief of Staff) , Peter Rouse (Chief of Staff), Rahm Emmanuel (Former Chief of Staff), Robert Gibbs (Press Secretary), Phil Schiliro (Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs), Mona Sutphen (Deputy Chief of Staff), Alyssa Mastromonaco (Director of Scheduling and Advance), and Valerie Jarrett (Senior Advisor to the President and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison).

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."

Gay rights was another major issue on which Messina clashed with Obama supporters. The relationship between the administration and gay rights groups was strained from the outset, when Obama chose Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation. "It is difficult to comprehend how our president-elect, who has been so spot-on in nearly every political move and gesture, could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his inaugural invocation," wrote Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in the Washington Post.

After reading the op-ed, Messina sternly rebuked Solmonese during a meeting at the White House. "I'm never going back to another meeting like that again," Solmonese angrily told his staff afterward. From then on, HRC, to the consternation of other gay rights groups, toed the administration line.

With Messina as a top liaison to the gay rights community, the White House was reluctant to make repealing "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) a key legislative priority. "The White House, under Rahm and Messina, suffered from political homophobia," says Joe Sudbay, who writes about gay rights issues for AMERICAblog. "They're not homophobes in the traditional sense of the word, but they think it's dangerous to do gay issues in politics." Groups that questioned Messina's strategy, such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, were frozen out of key White House meetings. "I felt like he was constantly angry with those of us who would not fall in line," says Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United (no relation to SLDN).

The president reiterated his commitment to repealing DADT in his second State of the Union address, in January 2010. But a few days later, in a meeting with gay rights groups, Messina spoke of the difficulty of ending DADT in the midst of two wars, a remark many of the activists in the room found offensive. The Pentagon needed time to survey the troops on the impact of repeal, Messina said, which wouldn't be done until December. That meant there likely wouldn't be a vote on repealing DADT until 2011, even though the Democratic Congress of 2009-10 presented the best opportunity to repeal the law. "People on the Hill kept saying, 'The White House doesn't have a strategy' right up through the lame duck session," Sudbay says.

On November 16 gay rights activists picketed the Common Purpose meeting and shouted at Messina as he entered, "What's your plan?" It was only after the administration's tax cut deal with Congressional Republicans enraged liberal Democrats that repealing DADT became a last-minute priority for the White House, which badly needed a legislative victory to soothe its progressive base. "It was a Hail Mary pass with ten seconds to go in the fourth quarter," says Brad Luna, a leading gay rights activist who runs a progressive-oriented PR firm. Sudbay says the DADT repeal passed "in spite of Messina," and Luna agrees. "At the end of the day I'd definitely label him an impediment," Luna says. "He was not falling on a sword to get DADT passed."

Solmonese offered a different perspective, calling Messina "unquestionably one of the great unsung heroes of DADT repeal." The two stood side by side on the Senate floor as the bill cleared the body on December 18. When the sixtieth vote came in, Solmonese said, Messina began to cry. After it was all over, Messina touted repeal as a major victory for the administration and an example of Obama's commitment to his base.

Messina grew up in Boise, Idaho, became active in politics at the University of Montana and cut his teeth as an organizer for Montana People's Action, helping disenfranchised trailer park residents in Missoula. Like Obama, he refers to himself as a community organizer at heart. When Messina started working for Democrats in the Montana legislature, "he was a flaming liberal," remembers Gene Fenderson, a veteran state labor organizer. But when he took a job with Baucus in 1995, Messina shed his liberal roots. "He changed philosophies in a nanosecond," Fenderson says. Messina became fiercely loyal to Baucus and wasn't shy about doing his boss's dirty work. "Jim is one of those campaign workers who reflects his boss," says Pat Williams. "Max does not easily suffer dissent, and Jim saw himself as Max's enforcer."

In 1999 Messina became chief of staff to New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy but returned to manage Baucus's re-election campaign in 2002. The campaign became infamous when the Montana Democratic Party ran an ad showing his GOP opponent, Mike Taylor, a former hairdresser, fondling the hair and face of a male client while wearing a '70s-style leisure suit. Taylor dropped out days after the ad aired, accusing the Baucus campaign of "character assassination and personal destruction." Gay rights groups condemned the ad as antigay, but it greatly enhanced Messina's reputation as a top Democratic operative. "He touted the ad as the way to do politics in the West," said Toole.

Tags: afl-cio, andrew breitbart, blue dog democrats, blue dogs, center for american progress, common purpose project, congress, dadt, dan pfeiffer, david plouffe, gay rights, hcan, health care for america now, healthcare, hillary clinton, iraq, jim messina, john roberts, karl rove, max baucus, moveon, new york times, obama, obama administration, planned parenthood, president barack obama, president bush, president obama, rahm emanuel, rick warren, supreme court, washington post, white house

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

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