Journalist John Heilemann

The New York magazine’s national affairs editor and Game Change author weighs in on the presidential campaign.

Award-winning journalist John Heilemann has covered national politics, business, economics and technology for two decades. Currently the national affairs editor for New York magazine and and a political analyst for MSNBC, he previously wrote for The New Yorker, Wired and The Economist. He's also co-author of Game Change, the international best seller chronicling the historic 2008 presidential campaign and adapted into an HBO telefilm that won five Emmy Awards this year. Heilemann is working on a sequel book about the 2012 presidential race, which is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2013.


Tavis: John Heilemann is the national affairs editor for “New York” magazine and a political analyst for MSNBC. He is also the co-author of the best-selling book “Game Change,” which served as the basis for the Emmy-winning HBO movie.

The election issue of “New York” magazine is on newsstands today. There it is. He joins us tonight from New York. John, good to have you back on this program, sir.

John Heilemann: Brother Smiley, happy to be here.

Tavis: Glad to have you, Brother Heilemann. Let me start with the obvious. Tomorrow night’s a big deal, a big night for the president.

Heilemann: Yeah.

Tavis: I suspect that the very format, John, this town hall setup, which is very different than mano-a-mano might play to the advantage of both of these guys tomorrow night, but it certainly doesn’t put him in the position of having to be the enforcer tomorrow night, just given the setup. What do you make of that statement?

Heilemann: Well, I think first of all let’s just think about the stakes are very high.

Tavis: Right.

Heilemann: People joke about oh, these debates count a lot, but after the president’s what was widely perceived as a huge failure in Denver two weeks ago, the stakes are really high for him. You know, 67 million people watched that speech, Tavis.

It was more people than watched any of the debates in 2008, more people than have ever seen one of President Obama’s states of the union or a convention speech, the biggest audience he’s ever performed in front of, and he pretty much had a big bellyflop in that speech.

So now I think that a lot of people around the country, whether they saw that debate or not, it’s become kind of an urban legend. Like, you know, some alligator came out of the sewer and ate Barack Obama.

People are invested in the storyline. I think the audience tomorrow night’s going to be huge, and people want to know can he come back, is he going to right his ship, what’s his performance going to be like? So the eyes of the world are on him.

They’re also on Romney, but the president has a lot of pressure on him. I think in terms of the format, it makes it harder when you’re answering questions from voters. It makes it a lot harder to turn and pivot from the question into an attack on your opponent, and there are a lot of things that President Obama wants to contrast himself with Governor Romney on.

It’s a little harder to do that in front of a – when you’re answering a voter’s question. You’ve kind of got to answer the question, not seem like you’re just using them as a prop. I think President Obama is going to be faced with some difficult questions from people who are supporters of his.

I think the hardest question he’s going to get is going to be someone who’s going to say “I love you in 2008, I believed in you, I wanted you to succeed, I still want you to succeed, but you’ve really disappointed me, and what can you tell me that’s going to make me think it’s going to be different the next four years?”

Governor Romney has never been good in terms of dealing with actual human beings in almost any setting, (laughter) and so that is a very high-risk, high-reward situation for him.

He’s moved his favorability numbers up considerably since the debate in Denver. If he knocks it out of the park tomorrow night, it could be a huge win for him. If he falters, it will be like all of their gains from the previous debate will be eradicated pretty quickly.

Just as I think President Obama’s going to face that tough question that I just gave you, I think someone in the crowd is going to say to Governor Romney, “Listen, man, I work hard for a living, I work 40 hours a week, but I’m a member of the working poor, and I get the earned income tax credit, so I don’t pay income taxes.

“Now, you’ve said that I’m part of the 47 percent that is a moocher and who you can’t be the president of, and who you don’t care about, who you can’t help. Explain to me why I should possibly vote for someone who has that attitude towards me,” and that’s going to put him on the spot and the spotlight’s going to shine real bright, and we’ll see how well he reacts.

Tavis: I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve just said, which is what I was trying to say when I asked whether or not the format tomorrow plays to Mr. Obama’s advantage. I didn’t say it nearly as well as you do, and that’s why you’re the best-selling writer and I’m not.

But that’s what I was getting at, that the format plays to the president’s advantage, I think, which is dealing, as you might say, with human beings. It puts him at ease and so the stakes are high tomorrow night, but I would be much more concerned – if I’m an Obama supporter, I’m much more concerned about the president in a one-on-one setting, given how well Romney did last time.

I’m more heartened by the fact that at least he’s talking to everyday people, and the question you just posed, which may be the toughest question he gets, he knows that question’s coming tomorrow night, John.

Tavis: He better know it, and he’s had it before, Tavis. He had it in a town hall with CNBC a couple of years ago and was sort of flummoxed by it. I imagine he’s preparing for that kind of question, or similar questions.

The other thing if I’m a supporter of the president, the other thing that I’m heartened by is by history. President Obama has had bad performances in the past. He was not a particularly sterling debater in his presidential run, particularly against Hillary Clinton, who really did kind of clean his clock in a lot of those primary debates, you may remember.

But President Obama has a history – he’s a great fourth quarter player. There are a lot of times for the first three quarters of the game where he kind of has, he doesn’t seem that engaged, he exhibits some lassitude, like he’s kind of bored with the thing and he’s not really fully there.

But usually, again, just speaking historically, usually when his back’s against the wall, when the chips are down, like when the stakes are highest, he usually rises to the occasion. He’s an extraordinarily competitive human being and an extraordinarily competitive politician, and he knows how high the stakes are tonight and he knows how badly he did back in Denver.

I think that if I was a supporter of the president rooting for him, the thing I’d be counting on is that history that he’s had of rising to big moments, and especially rising to moments where he absolutely needed to win and to take his game up a level.

Tavis: This might be impolitic to say, but I agree with you again that the president is a competitor. There’ve been all kinds of stories and detailed articles written about his persona and the way that he does, in fact, so often rise to the occasion.

How much of this – and again, I don’t – I’m not into pop psychology, but how much of this has to do, that is to say his performance tomorrow night, has to do with the fact that Joe Biden put some heat on him.

What I mean to suggest by that is he was so good, most Americans I think, the polls I’ve seen, at least, certainly Democrats believe that Joe Biden was so good in his debate with Paul Ryan that the president needs to step up his game to not be outshined by his own VP.

Heilemann: Well, I think there’s some of that, certainly. Some of that’s true. I think, you know, the other thing that Vice President Biden did Vice President Biden did for President Obama – and I think reactions to that debate have split really on partisan lines.

Republicans think that he was rude and that he was laughing and his facial expressions were bad, and that he interrupted Ryan too much and he was kind of a jerk; Democrats thought he showed fight and was all heart and they loved it. So that’s been one of those debates where the reaction to it split pretty much down party lines.

But what he did for President Obama, I think more importantly, is he threw the kitchen sink at Paul Ryan, and in the process of doing that, like every argument you could possibly make – the 47 percent, Medicare, Afghanistan, taxes, abortion, he threw it all at Congressman Ryan, and what the Obama team, being the Obama team, has done over the last three or four days is they’ve chopped that tape up and they’ve showed it to a lot of focus groups, they’ve shown it to a lot of voters.

They do more focus group testing than any campaign I’ve ever covered, and they’ve looked to try to find out which of those arguments hit home and which of those had traction, allowing the president now to cherry-pick from Biden’s performance to home in on issues that seem to have the most traction with voters, and I think you’ll see that played out.

When you see President Obama focus on one or two of those issues, you’ll know that those are the ones of Vice President Biden’s that resonated in the research they’ve done over the weekend.

Tavis: Is there any way, to your mind, that the debate tomorrow night between Obama and Romney could draw a more stark contrast between the choices than did Biden and Ryan? I’m having a hard time believing how either one of them makes the line more definitively clear.

Heilemann: Well, Tavis, I don’t, and I think part of the reason for that is that Governor Romney doesn’t want that line to be stark. That’s what we saw in Denver.

Tavis: Right.

Heilemann: Is that he – whether you say that he was being evasive and whether you say that he was being untruthful or whether you say he was pivoting to the center and doing an Etch-A-Sketch or whatever you call it, he clearly made the move to the middle in one fell swoop in that debate in Denver.

He didn’t do what a lot of candidates do, which is gradually edge towards the center from having been out a little bit further toward the extreme in his nomination contest. He didn’t do it gradually, he did it all in one big chunk in that debate in Denver, and I think he’s, again, he’s going to be talking about bipartisanship.

He knows he’s got to win this election in the middle, and it worked for him in Denver, trying to get to the center, talking about bipartisanship, adopting a much softer tone on every possible issue. So he’s going to want to try to obscure the clarity of the choice and the distinction.

Tavis: So does that same Romney show up tomorrow night, the moderate Romney, the moderate Mitt?

Heilemann: I do, I think absolutely. I think they feel like his debate, that there were a lot of things that went right for them in the debate in Denver. President Obama didn’t perform that well, Romney performed well stylistically. But I think they also really feel that him going back to what they see as his moderate, pragmatic, Massachusetts roots was a winner for them with the voters that they need to move in the swing states, and I think they’re going to double down on that.

Tavis: Obviously, the last debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer from CBS, is about foreign policy exclusively, but that does not mean that foreign policy won’t come up tomorrow night. I’ve got money that says Romney is going to raise the Libya issue in answer to some question tomorrow night. Whether it’s relevant to the question or not, he’s going to get that in.

What’s your sense over the past few days of the inroads that the Romney-Ryan campaign thinks it’s making on pressing the president on this Libya issue and what they’re trying to hide?

Heilemann: Well, let me say – I’ll say just a few things about that. First, the president is playing a bad hand here. The facts are bad for him here. The administration still has not satisfactorily accounted for what happened in Libya. There are dead people who lost their lives. We don’t know whether it was an intelligence failure, whether it was actually there’s some kind of a cover-up.

The stories have changed. The facts are bad, so that’s number one.

Number two, most voters don’t care. Most voters are focused on issues that are much closer to home for them and affect their lives in a more direct way. So it’s all up to Governor Romney, and I think what he’s been doing over the last few days, by seizing on this issue, is, as is the case with a lot of foreign policy issues, is he’s trying to use it as a metaphor for something else, which is strength.

President Obama has had the lead in foreign policy and has been received as the stronger leader in the polling, stronger leader than Governor Romney. That’s traditionally where Republicans have strength, have an advantage. I think Governor Romney has seized this as a way of taking away some of President Obama’s strength and trying to get that to glom onto him.

So I think you’re right, he’s going to hit him on it. We’re going to see a lot of it in the third debate, as you pointed out. But I think it’s something where they think they have a winning hand on the, on the theme, if not because the actual issue of what happened in Libya is actually going to change very many votes on the ground.

Tavis: If you are an undecided voter at this moment, what, pray tell, are you undecided about?

Heilemann: (Laughs) Well, Tavis, I think when you are – I think the subset of undecided voters is a very small group now. We have a very, very – one of the smallest groups of undecided at this point in the campaign, and that’s been true for a month, that I’ve ever seen, or that most political professionals have seen.

I think you have people who are mostly in the category of who say the following thing, which is I like President Obama, I wanted him to succeed. The economy has not improved to the extent that I had hoped it would. I’m not totally confident of or trusting in President Obama’s economic management or his ability to make Washington work, which he promised to do when he ran in 2008.

But I’m not sure that Governor Romney appreciates my struggles, I’m not sure Governor Romney understands the average person and what they have to go through in the American economy. I don’t know if he shares my values. I don’t know if he cares about me.

I think that that is where the lack of – they’re still uncomfortable with President Obama, but they’re not yet sold on Governor Romney, and it’s some combination of ineffable things. It’s not one issue, it’s not one argument, it’s some combination of ineffable qualities and responses that are going to bring those people to probably make their decision over the course of the next few weeks.

Tavis: Sequestration is a good word on a Scrabble game if you can line those letters up just right; it’s a horrible word for politics, and yet I suspect it might come up tomorrow night as well. Mr. Ryan has advanced in the media today the notion that if they were to win, Romney-Ryan, there’d be a much better chance at making sure that these automatic cuts that most Americans have heard about that are scheduled to kick in after the first of the year will not kick in because they will be in the White House and have a much better chance at working with Republicans in the House and the Senate to avoid the U.S. going over that cliff.

Is that an argument that Mr. Romney can sell effectively tomorrow night?

Heilemann: Well, I think first of all, just to be technique, the sequester is supposed to happen on January 1st.

Tavis: Right.

Heilemann: So Governor Romney has made it – his position is that he doesn’t want those issues to be dealt with in a lame duck session. So the way that it would have to work is there would have to be a – the sequestration vote, which is $500 billion in defense cuts, $500 billion in cuts to social programs and domestic discretionary spending, they would have to be kicked down the road by some number of months until after Governor Romney got inaugurated, so that’s the first point.

The second point is I think it’s one of the most powerful arguments that Governor Romney has always had, which is to say President Obama, the core of his campaign in 2008 was he was going to come to Washington, he was going to be post-partisan, he was going to bring the capitol together and he was going to move us past the mindless polarization of the past 20 years, and he’s failed to do that.

Now, you and I both know that there’s plenty of blame to go around. Republicans have opposed President Obama reflexively, relentlessly, throughout his term. It’s also true that President Obama has not, by many measures, worked very well with Capitol Hill, not just with (unintelligible) worked well with Republicans, but hasn’t worked well with Democrats particularly well, and he was the one who promised to fix it in his campaign.

So I think Governor Romney, he brought this up at his convention speech, but he’s starting to bring it home now a little bit, which is just the simple argument of why would a voter think that the next four years, President Obama is going to be able to make Washington work together? Why should we think he’ll be able to work with Republicans in the next four years when he couldn’t work with them in the first four years? I think that has an intuitive appeal to a lot of voters.

Tavis: I want to talk about your work in the new issue of “New York” magazine, the article about Bill and Hillary Clinton, in just a second. We’ll get to your work. But as you know, for quite a while now I’ve been talking about the issue of poverty and traveling the country. We’ve discussed this together on MSNBC.

I’ve been troubled by the fact – “troubled” is not a strong enough word, but certainly disheartened by the fact that in the first two debates, Mr. Lehrer failed me, Ms. Raddatz did a much better job, I think, than Jim Lehrer? Can I say that on PBS? I think I just did. (Laughter) Martha Raddatz did a much better job than Jim Lehrer did in the second debate.

Heilemann: Yeah.

Tavis: Respectfully. But still, no question about poverty. The numbers are very clear. We know what the poverty index is in this country; it’s threatening our very democracy. The middle class is falling into poverty. You know the storyline as well as I do, but no moderator has asked a question directly about poverty and the poor in this country.

Tomorrow night, given that it is a town hall meeting, might we get a question, you think, about that specifically from someone who is living in impoverished conditions, and how does that put Romney and Obama on the spot?

Heilemann: God, I hope so, Tavis, I hope so. There are a lot – and I don’t mean to in any way downplay poverty, but there’s a bunch of issues that I think we haven’t had discussed so far. The one thing I’ll say about Martha Raddatz, who I thought did a great job, that debate was 70, almost 70 minutes out of 90 were spent foreign policy, and I think foreign policy’s really important, but if you match that up with the priorities of most Americans –

Tavis: I agree.

Heilemann: – they don’t think that, that’s not two-thirds of their concern.

Tavis: Agreed.

Heilemann: We haven’t talked about poverty, we haven’t talked about immigration, we haven’t talked about things like gay marriage, like a lot of very sensitive social issues. A lot of those things have not been raised in either of the first two debates, and I have no idea what’s going on in the heads of those voters that are being chosen.

Although Candy Crowley, who’s moderating this third debate, she gets to cull the questions from the audience and she gets to choose who gets to speak. I’m sure that she’s going to be focused on trying to get some issues aired in this debate that haven’t been aired in the first two, and the list that I just gave you, poverty, I know, is incredibly important and is incredibly important to you.

I’m hopeful that it will come up. I think both of the candidates, they know which ones haven’t been asked, right?

Tavis: Right.

Heilemann: A lot of people around them are studying this. I think they’re probably pretty well prepared to answer those questions, but I think America really needs to hear their answers, because in some cases those issues aren’t being raised very much on the campaign trail either, and they really do matter to a lot of people.

Tavis: Right. Okay, to the issue of “New York” magazine. Jonathan, put that back up again just a second. It’s a wonderful cover that lays out a variety of the issues that are being covered and not covered, as it were, on the campaign. You get top billing on the new issue in a wonderful piece about the Clintons.

I was anxious to get to it, because everybody knows that Bill did his thing at the Democratic convention, so he is back in full effect. Give me the top line of your story.

Heilemann: Well, the top line is, I mean, the most striking thing to me has been in this campaign has been the development of his importance in this race. There’s no one in the Obama world – I shouldn’t say there’s no one. Many people in the Obama world at the senior levels of that campaign said to me in reporting this story, said his speech in Charlotte was the single most important moment of the campaign so far.

We could see it in our polling; we could see it in our focus groups, that that’s when the corner got turned on President Obama’s ratings. As an economic manager, he was behind Romney for a long time. Now he’s running dead even with him, and a little bit ahead in some of the polling, and the right-track, wrong-track number in the country, people’s optimism about the economy, really turned literally the moment Bill Clinton stopped speaking.

The words that he spoke in Charlotte when he said “No president, not even me, could have fixed the problems that President Obama inherited in just four years,” is literally I think the most important single sentence that’s been said in this campaign. The Obama campaign concedes that.

It’s amazing, if you remember, Tavis, how much bitterness there was between President Obama and the Clintons together in 2008. So the story in this piece is how the two of them got over that alienation between the two of them over the course of the last four years.

There is not a lot of affection between them today, but there is, as one long-time Clinton person says in the piece that I quote says, “It’s a totally transactional and highly functional relationship now.” They’re both getting something out of it and they both care about the policies that President Obama represents, which are now almost entirely the same sets of policies that President Clinton embraced back in the 1990s, and that’s a large part of why they’re now hand-in-hand.

Tavis: For those who have not yet read the piece but will rush out and get it, of course, what does Clinton get out of this relationship at this point to your comment a moment ago, John, what does Bill Clinton get out of it, and what’s Barack Obama get out of it?

Heilemann: Well, I think President Clinton gets a couple of things out of it. Look, my friend David Maraniss, the great biographer of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, says that about Bill Clinton, and he knows Bill Clinton as well as well as anybody, he says that Bill Clinton loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved, (laughter) and he’s needed in this campaign.

You can tell he’s needed, again – I get some frustrated Obama supporters who say to me, “Bill Clinton didn’t win this election for Barack Obama,” or “He’s not going to be the reason. You’re giving too much credit to him.”

The Obama people give the credit to him, and if you go across the country and look at the ads they’re running around the country, they’ve run Bill Clinton, the straight-to-camera Bill Clinton ad, making the case for Obama’s reelection, they’ve run it 16,000 times in the swing states – more than any other ad they’ve run.

There were ads out there that basically showed President Clinton and President Obama as if they were running mates. So President Clinton feels like he’s needed. That’s really great for his ego, he loves being in that position. He also gets to see Clintonism – the creed that he brought into our world – validated and put back in what he thinks of as its rightful place.

Barack Obama ran in 2008 as an antidote to Clintonism. He said, no, that’s too much poll testing, too much triangulation, too incremental and too partisan. I’m going to be post-partisan and transcendent and visionary, and now he’s not running as an antidote to Clintonism, he’s running as the inheritor of Clintonism.

He’s standing up and saying “I am the one to carry the Clinton creed forward.” So President Clinton gets that, and he also gets with that the restoration of Clintonism to, as I said, what he sees as its rightful place. That can’t help but help Hillary Clinton if she decides to run in 2016, which almost everyone around here thinks she, in fact, is going to do.

That’s the answer to your first question. You want me to do Obama now?

Tavis: Go for it.

Heilemann: Obama gets the most widely respected, almost neutral economic arbiter in politics today. A guy with the highest approval rating of any political figure in the country – 69 percent – who’s taken as, who’s associated with this period of peace and prosperity. He gets that guy, a guy who can talk the owls down from the trees. (Laughter)

The best surrogate, the best spokesman in the history of the world, to go out and make his case for him, and especially to make his case for him with white working class and white middle class voters – the kind of voters that President Obama has found it kind of hard to reach as a candidate first in 2008 and as president.

He helps him with a vulnerable set of the electorate that he really needs, and so he gets a huge boost towards his reelection. He doesn’t guarantee his reelection, but he gets a big boost in what’s going to be a very, very tight race.

Tavis: Let me ask a very impolitic question, which I know you can handle. What does it say about our politics that the first African American president, even after one term, still needs a white guy to help him get elected to a second term?

Heilemann: Well, I can tell you what I think Bill Clinton would say. I think Bill Clinton would say that the fault is Barack Obama’s, and that if Barack Obama – his main criticism, you hear all these things about things that President Clinton thinks privately about President Obama, about how he doesn’t, like, take care of his donors enough or he doesn’t schmooze enough on Capitol Hill.

President Clinton doesn’t actually think either one of those things. What he thinks is President Obama has failed to go out and sell his policies to the country and make a clear, convincing, educated and educational argument for why he’s the obvious and clear choice to be reelected president.

There’s a guy I quote in the piece who says that President Clinton doesn’t understand Barack Obama gets all the big stuff right and he doesn’t do the – he gets all the hard stuff right, but he doesn’t do the easy stuff at all.

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Heilemann: What he means by that is here’s a guy with extraordinary communicative capacities when he tries, who’s not out there making the argument. What Clinton said before Charlotte to his friends was, he said “People need education, not eloquence. They need to have the case laid out.”

His frustration with President Obama has been that he hasn’t done that. I think President Clinton would say if Barack Obama had done that, which was easily within his capacity, he wouldn’t need me. He’d be able to make this case on his own, but he hasn’t, and so I’m going to do it.

Tavis: I got a tight two minutes here. Two other quick questions. One, you mentioned Barack Obama wanting to be post-partisan. I get the sense, John, and this is underscored in reading your piece, that Barack Obama doesn’t really care about the infrastructure and the party politics at the DNC. How does Clinton’s reemergence put him and perhaps Ms. Clinton, Hillary, back in charge whenever Obama is out of office, of fashioning how the DNC moves forward?

Heilemann: Well, I think that look, it’s going to be a very open – the field – until Hillary Clinton decides what to do, the field is going to be wide open. Every other Democratic potential candidate is waiting. They’re hanging fire, waiting to hear what she’s going to do, because a lot of donors in the country are not going to decide to put any money behind anybody until they know what her move is.

So everyone’s kind of frozen in place. If she decides to run, I think that there’s a – she will be, almost by acclimation, the Democratic nominee. There will be some people to challenge her, but she will have – there’s so much love for her in the party, there’s so much of a sense that they made a very difficult choice between two historic possibilities in 2008, that it’s time for a woman, and this is the woman.

I think they will immediately, because President Obama, as you said, doesn’t particularly care about choosing a successor, and has never been that interested in the party structure, I think as soon as Hillary Clinton decides to run, the Clintons together will become the two 800-pound gorilla, or maybe you’ll call them the 1,600-pound twin gorilla, that will be once again at the absolute center of gravity for the entire Democratic Party.

Tavis: It’s hard to find anybody who’s better at this covering these critical issues. His name, of course, John Heilemann, author of the best seller “Game Change,” and now the author of a new piece in the magazine he works for, “New York” magazine, called “Bill and Hillary Forever.” (Laughs) I’m sure they love the title. John, good to have you on the program, as always. Thanks for your time.

Heilemann: Tavis, thank you, man.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm