One of President Barack Obama’s former top campaign advisers is “losing patience” with the White House, he told POLITICO Tuesday morning, as frustrations among the president’s liberal allies crest over issues from health care legislation to gay rights.
“I am one of the millions of frustrated Americans who want to see Washington do more than it's doing right now,” said Steve Hildebrand, the deputy campaign manager who oversaw the Obama campaign’s field organization and was an architect of his early, crucial victories over Sen. Hillary Clinton in Iowa and South Carolina.
Obama, he said, “needs to be more bold in his leadership.”
“I’m not going to just sit by the curb and let these folks get away with a lack of performance for the American people,” he said, speaking of Washington’s Democratic leadership as a whole. “I want change just as much as a majority of Americans do, and I’m one of the many Americans who are losing patience.”
Hildebrand is by far the most senior member of Obama’s political team to express public doubts about the White House, though he had already begun to part ways with Obama’s other top aides as the 2008 presidential campaign wore on.
Hildebrand was a key player in the primary campaign but grew increasingly alienated from the organization over, a person close to him said, strategic differences. Other top campaign officials grew frustrated with what they saw as Hildebrand’s at times negative attitude and his candid comments to the press, rare in the intensely disciplined campaign.
Still, he remains close to some top Obama aides, and his blast from the left is a mark of the depth of dissent even within elements of the organization that elected the first black president. His public comments are “nothing I haven't directly said to folks in the White House,” Hildebrand told POLITICO in an interview from his native South Dakota, where he came to prominence running former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s political operation.
Rresponding to Hildebrand’s criticism, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said it’s true that Hildebrand had raised the same frustrations to him and others inside the White House. But he stopped short of directly addressing the his criticism that Obama hasn’t been bold enough.
“We all know and love Steve Hildebrand,” said Gibbs, who noted Hildebrand was involved in then-Sen. Obama’s decision whether to run for president. “There’s nothing in there we haven’t all heard from him. But, look, I think Steve's frustration is the frustration of people not only in this town but a lot of people outside of this town — and that is Washington's inability to address big problems and get something done.”
Asked to address Hildebrand’s comments that the president hasn’t been forceful enough, Gibbs said, “Well, I'll e-mail Steve and tell him what which affiliate in Sioux Falls will be covering the [health-care] speech so he can listen to the president.”
Hildebrand broke his long post-campaign silence in a speech to the San Diego Democratic Club on August 22, which was reported in the gay press but passed without national notice. Hildebrand, who is gay, confirmed the comments reported in Zenger’s Newsmagazine, though he said the article’s assertion that he’d made a “slashing attack” on Obama was “over the top.”
“The problem is, Obama isn’t listening enough,” Hildebrand said, according to the report. “I love him, I love Michelle, I want him to succeed, but all of us need to put pressure on him and Congress to do the right things. The American people put confidence in the Democrats because they thought we could get things done, and if we fail, they’re not going to give it back.”
“I gave up a lot to elect Democrats, and I expect them to give it up for me. I’m going to speak loudly. The Republicans don’t have power unless the moderates and the Blue Dogs give it to them — which is what they’re doing now,” he said in the speech.
Hildebrand also said, according to the Zenger’s report, that that 2009 is shaping up to be “1993 all over again.” He told POLITICO he blames moderate Democrats in the House and Senate for the party’s weakness.
“There's basically three different parties, and one of those parties tends to be the barrier to getting anything done — and that's the Blue Dogs in the House and the moderates in the Senate,” he said in the interview. “Change is not going to come by people in the Beltway deciding we should have change. It’s going to come because they’re feeling pressure from all over the country.”
“I know where Barack Obama is on these issues and I don't question his sincerity or his honesty towards trying to solve them,” he said. “I do question whether or not the Congress as it is constituted right now is going to have the capacity to ever deliver on some of the most critical issues facing our country right now.”
Hildebrand was a singular figure as Obama’s campaign bus rolled through the hills of Iowa, a goateed, soft-spoken, and sometimes mischievous gay man who lived in sleepy Sioux Falls, right across the state line. Along with running the field organization alongside his former business partner, State Director Paul Tewes, Hildebrand made Obama’s case in his black leather jacket and casual clothes to key local Iowa leaders, one by one.
He said in the San Diego speech that gay rights was among the issues that had spurred his disappointment, mourning that after his 22 years of working for Democratic candidates, “we haven’t come very far,” according to the report.
“The government still doesn’t treat Gay people equally. Should I continue doing what I’m doing, or should I be a strong voice from the outside?” he said.
Hildebrand said in San Diego that he had demanded that his own congresswoman, South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, return his contribution after she voted for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and that he would vote for a Republican against her next year.
Hildebrand, who worked for a stretch for Rep. Kendrick Meek’s bid for a Florida Senate Seat, is no longer working on that campaign, and said he’d returned home to focus on issue campaigns, rather than candidates.
Hildebrand told POLITICO, however, that Obama may be getting back onto the right track.
“He needs to -- much like he did yesterday in that speech [to a union audience in Cincinnati], much like he'll do, I assume, [in an address to Congress] on Wednesday -- rally the American people to force change on Washington,” Hildebrand said. “Change is not going to come by people in the Beltway deciding we should have change -- it's going to come because they're feeling pressure from all over the country.”