CHARLESTON, WV -- An internal White House assessment concludes that President Obama must distance himself from a recalcitrant Congress after being badly damaged last year by legislative failures, a government shutdown and his own missteps.
Obama has said that his fraught relationship with Congress, especially after Republicans won the House in 2010, complicated his ability to promote his agenda. But for the first time, following what many allies view as a lost year, the White House is reorganizing itself to support a more executive-focused presidency and inviting the rest of the government to help.
The new approach comes after weeks of internal White House debate over a single question: What went wrong in 2013? The answers will help determine the outline of the State of the Union address Obama will deliver Tuesday evening, as well as how he pursues a meaningful legacy in the remainder of his term.
Last year began with the fresh-start ambitions of his second inauguration but ended in a long trail of mistakes, international embarrassments and missed legislative opportunities that sapped Obama's credibility with the public.
Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer outlined the lessons learned in a three-page memo that Obama discussed with his Cabinet in recent weeks, according to several administration officials who have read the document.
Among its conclusions is that Obama, a former state legislator and U.S. senator, too often governed more like a prime minister than a president. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister is elected by lawmakers and thus beholden to them in ways a president is not.
As a result, Washington veterans have been brought into the West Wing to emphasize an executive style of governing that aims to sidestep Congress more often. A central ambition of Obama's presidency — to change the way Washington works — has effectively been discarded as a distraction in a time of hardening partisanship.
The White House postmortem also concluded that the administration suffered from a lack of focus in a year without an election. The 2012 campaign imposed discipline on the White House, providing a political filter to assess every new initiative. Obama wanted to know how his decisions would be explained to voters, a demand that vanished once the election was won.
As a result, senior advisers now say, the White House's focus did not match its ambitions as 2013 began.
A bid for new restrictions on gun sales died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Immigration reform, thought to be a priority for Republicans after their poor showing with Latinos in the last election, languished. A late-arriving budget proposal that included cuts to entitlement programs surprised and angered Obama's base.
Even some of Obama's closest advisers acknowledged that he sometimes appeared distant in meetings before the disastrous health-care rollout in the fall. The biggest national security leak in U.S. history, the first successful terrorist bombing in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and a worsening war in Syria piled more time-consuming issues onto a cluttered agenda.
By the end of the year, a majority of Americans questioned his administration's basic competence. Now without an election ahead, Obama has fewer opportunities to recover — making this State of the Union address as politically consequential as any speech in his tenure.
"A State of the Union creates a contract with the public about what you say and what you will do," said John D. Podesta, a senior adviser to Obama brought in this month to help design an effective governing strategy around the president's goals.
"In that sense it is like a campaign, and it disciplines the priorities of the White House by creating an operation manual for the year ahead," he said. "It is certainly in that spirit we are approaching this year's State of the Union."
Before Obama answered questions in December from the White House press corps during the traditional year-end news conference, he personally wrote portions of his opening remarks, hoping to put a positive cast on the past year and the one ahead.
"I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America," he said. "We all know there's a lot more that we're going to have to do to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for every American. And that's going to require some action."
Afterward, Obama departed to Hawaii for nearly three weeks of golf, family time and thinking about how to correct the course of his presidency. Others on his senior staff did the same.
Pfeiffer, who has served in the administration from the start, returned to the West Wing a week before Obama. He had read a few presidential histories over the holiday and had taken heart in some of the lessons — and perspectives — offered by the travails of recent presidents.
Unsolicited, Pfeiffer wrote his three-page memo to Denis McDonough, another veteran Obama adviser named chief of staff at the start of the second term. Facing a divided Congress, the memo said, Obama's legislative record should not be used as the primary measure of his success.
The assessment concluded that Obama and his communications team allowed his fifth year to be judged too much by his dealings with Congress, which were poor.
A conservative Republican faction killed his gun-control proposals — joined by some Democratic senators — and eventually shut down the government for 16 days. "We still didn't know enough about the Republicans," said one senior administration official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal assessments.
A second senior administration official said, "The problem for us is that the test of our success became what we passed in Congress, and even in the best case — if the fever had broken and the clouds had parted — we still would have only gotten maybe 40 percent of what we wanted."
"The political discussion, the press, the politicians want to pull the president into the role of prime minister," the second official added. "So you have to swerve really hard to the executive powers at a time like this."
That point was more a reminder than a novel assessment. After Obama's second inaugural address last January, Podesta, then head of the Center for American Progress, the administration's off-campus think tank, said Obama "no longer feels to me like a prime minister."
"He now understands the full range of the power of the presidency to get things done," Podesta said at the time.
Now in the West Wing for a yearlong stint as senior adviser, Podesta acknowledged that he was brought in partly to make that early prediction a reality.
He said that too often the story of Obama's past year was dominated by his dealings with Capitol Hill, whether it was his early series of dinners courting lawmakers, the gun legislation defeat or a shutdown that the administration did not expect to actually happen.
"Looking at the last year from outside, a lot of it was the president in battle with a dysfunctional Congress," Podesta said. "Our task is to remember that [Sen.] Harry Reid is the majority leader, not the president," and allow him to manage Democratic priorities in the Senate.
This year, for once, began without a looming fiscal crisis. A budget agreement that replaces some of the money cut by the sequester has been passed, including White House priorities such as early-childhood education. Senior advisers say the deal may bode well for other modest legislative successes to come.
Senior advisers also say Obama intends to work with Congress to secure an immigration bill, believing that the Republicans are willing to cooperate to improve relations with Latino voters. It could well be the last measure of legacy-building scale that Obama will be able to get.
The rest of the administration's legislative wish list consists mostly of bills that once would have passed with little debate or measures with growing bipartisan support. A farm bill, patent legislation, a federal minimum-wage hike and a transportation bill are areas where Obama's advisers believe a partnership with Congress can produce modest results, even in a midterm election year.