Alex Massie

Obama’s Permanent Campaign

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The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons, who is always good fun, has been giving rave reviews to this Edward Luce piece in the FT that argues, essentially, that Obama's Gang of Four - Emanuel, Axelrod, Gibbs & Jarret - have cut the President off from a wider circe of voices, many of whom he could usefully be hearing from and that the Obama White House is proving less successful than it should be. Pithily, there's too much Chicago and not enough DC.

That's accompanied by a second, but related, complaint: the White House is being run as though it were an extension of the campaign. But the United States government is rather bigger than even a Presidential campaign. Thus:

Whatever issue arises, whether it is a failed terrorist plot in Detroit, the healthcare bill, economic doldrums or the 30,000-troop surge to Afghanistan, the White House instinctively fields Mr Axelrod or Mr Gibbs on television to explain the administration’s position. “Every event is treated like a twist in an election campaign and no one except the inner circle can be trusted to defend the president,” says an exasperated outside adviser.

[...] Administration insiders say the famously irascible Mr Emanuel treats cabinet principals like minions. “I am not sure the president realises how much he is humiliating some of the big figures he spent so much trouble recruiting into his cabinet,” says the head of a presidential advisory board who visits the Oval Office frequently. “If you want people to trust you, you must first place trust in them.”

Now some of this is the usual sniping from outsiders complaining that outsiders don't have enough influence. Nonetheless, there's probably something to it too.

On the other hand, Luce's piece suffers from a glaring, unresolved contradiction:

This White House-centric structure has generated one overriding – and unexpected – failure. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr Emanuel managed the legislative aspect of the healthcare bill quite skilfully, say observers. The weak link was the failure to carry public opinion – not Capitol Hill. But for the setback in Massachusetts, which deprived the Democrats of their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, Mr Obama would by now almost certainly have signed healthcare into law – and with it would have become a historic president.

Quite. If Teddy Kennedy hadn't died, HCR would have passed by now. That's bad luck. But, regardless of that, "the failure to carry public opinion" suggests that, despite what "observers" said a few paragraphs ago, the White House has spent too much time governing and not paid enough attention to campaigning.

Granted, that supposes that the President can carry public opinion with him through sheer magnificent force of will. But these are DC observers talking to Luce so that supposition may be taken as read. Of course the President can achieve anything, including persuading the public that, despite appearances to the contrary, they really do like his bill! (Some of them will never like it and others dislike it because it doesn't go far enough; few people much like the actual bill there is.)

Luce's observers also suggest, I think, that it was a mistake to press ahead with HCR in Year One. Well, perhaps, but I'm not sure there was any realistic alternative. Yes, doing health care just after you'd passed a huge stimulus package  - that being a stimulus package, will probably be written off as wasteful if it works and condemned as pointless if it doesn't - was ambitious. But when else do you try and pass HCR? Just before the mid-terms? Hardly. Just after mid-terms in which you lost seats? Come off it. Year Five? Ask Dubya about Social Security reform.

No, it probably had to be done early and as quickly as possible if it were to be done at all. These days I'm not sure you can really make any great distinction between governing and campaigning. That is, governing is a form of campaigning. This isn't so true in a parliamentary system where victories are more or less assured, regardless of their populairty but it is, I think, true of the American system in which momentum matters more and in which, in the end, there's safety in numbers: it's not about getting one Republican, it's about getting four or five so that you can lose one or two of yours and everyone has covered their back.

That's one part of the eternal campaign, but so too, of course, is the public arena. There's a majority for a health bill just as there's a majority for a bank regulation bill. Swinging public support behind the health bill or the bank bill, however, is a different matter and requires, perhaps, a different kind of campaigning skill. In the election you're selling a general idea, in government you have to sell a particular proposition. That's tougher, but it's still a sales job.

And in the end, you gotta close the deal. It doesn't much matter how many leads you have, it's how many deals you close and how much they're worth. That's a governing priority and it's also a campaigning necessity. Everyone in Washington deplores the permanent campaign but is addicted to it nonetheless. For better or for worse.

Finally, as is customary with such pieces, there's the call for a Wise Man - a Howard Baker or a David Gergen  - to come in and steady the ship. It's inconvenient, then, that even Gergen doesn't think Obama needs, or is perhaps ready, for David Gergen. At least not yet.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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