Belmont Club

The Empty Sandwich

Glenn Thrush at Politico describes the inner turmoil of the Obama campaign based on notes for a book titled Obama’s Last Stand. Thrush says that unlike 2008, when there was an “eyes-on-the-prize strategic focus,” the 2012 effort has been afflicted “by a succession of political disagreements and personal rivalries that haunted the effort at the outset.”

What changed? Thrush offers a succession of vignettes which are really a description of symptoms. Nowhere does he identify the cause of the disease. But the symptoms themselves strongly hint at what ails the president’s effort.

Most of the “political disagreements” described in the article have to do with messaging — the way things are presented. For example, Joe Biden’s “gaffe” on gay marriage had nothing to do with substance, only with timing: “Biden’s misstep, also in May, in announcing his approval of gay marriage — which forced Obama to do the same before he intended — caused greater disharmony in the White House than was reported at the time.” Timing was the problem, not substance, in one of the most momentous policy initiatives of his presidency: gay marriage.

The disharmony resembled a chronic grabbing for the steering wheel — what Thrush calls “self-promotion” among aides. In a case of life imitating art, the inmates of the actual White House acted like the cast of a fictional White House where actors vied for speaking parts. When David Axelrod got the cue, he fluffed his moment in the limelight:

As Axelrod was greeted by pro-Romney hecklers chanting “Axel-Fraud,” Obama was in the West Wing watching with growing disgust as the event unfolded on cable news. The scene, he scoffed to a nearby aide, was an ill-conceived “spectacle.”

“We aren’t going to do that kind of thing again, are we?” he asked peevishly, not a question but an order. Obama has no qualms about throwing a punch, his close intimates say, but can’t stand looking foolish when he does.

The comparison between the Obama campaign and the movie making is disturbingly apt. Aides were carefully evaluated with respect to how they came across in talk shows and interviews, exactly as if they were in show business. There were prima donna rows. An argument between David Axelrod and Stephanie Cutter flared up because “Axelrod suspected Cutter of taking a network TV appearance he had been asked to do.”

Astonishingly for an organization supposedly dedicated to serious enterprise — but alas, not surprisingly — the Obama operation had a Nielsen-like rating scheme in place to measure their own senior staff:

Obama’s brain trust secretly commissioned pollster David Binder to conduct an internal focus study of the popularity of top Obama campaign surrogates. Number one was former press secretary Robert Gibbs, followed by Cutter. Traveling press secretary Jen Psaki, who was added to a second study, was third. Axelrod, Plouffe and current White House press secretary Jay Carney were bunched in the middle. Wasserman Schultz ranked at the bottom.

This obsession with imagery, cute phrasing, and perception suggests that the real problem with the 2012 campaign is that it is all about nothing. It is an amusement park train running in circles; an enterprise for selling air. There is no record to run on, no actual workable policy to present. All it can offer is a series of soundbites touting vague promises and airy vistas. At rock bottom it is nothing but another attempt to re-elect Barack Obama.

But for what purpose? To what end? Well, according to the narrative, simply to prove that it can still do it.

In what may be the most revealing paragraph of his article, Thrush describes a campaign that is struggling for affirmation; an organization that is striving — unsuccessfully — to convince itself that they are not has-beens. They are open-mouthed in astonishment that Romney, a mere nothing, could be doing this to them:

It is Romney himself who provides a rallying point for both the candidate and his team.

Obama really doesn’t like, admire or even grudgingly respect Romney. It’s a level of contempt, say aides, he doesn’t even feel for the conservative, combative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Hill Republican he disliked the most. “There was a baseline of respect for John McCain. The president always thought he was an honorable man and a war hero,” a longtime Obama adviser said. “That doesn’t hold true for Romney. He was no goddamned war hero.”

Time and again Obama has told the people around him that Romney stood for “nothing.” The word he would use to describe Romney was “weak,” too weak to stand up to his own moneymen, too weak to defend his own moderate record as the man who signed into law the first health insurance mandate as Massachusetts governor in 2006, too weak to admit Obama had done a single thing right as president.

In Obama’s world, Romney owes him respect.  It is an argument of the form “it is true because it is true.” Why should anyone owe him respect? That is precisely what is not established. That is what the election is about. Niall Ferguson’s widely quoted article on Obama’s flagging campaign summarizes the problem in one sentence. The current election, Ferguson says, is not about 2008. It is about whether the winner of 2008 has done anything in the interim. “And the sad truth,” Ferguson concludes, “is that he has not.” Then he twists in the knife:

In his inaugural address, Obama promised “not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.” He promised to “build the roads and bridges, the electric grids, and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.” He promised to “restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.” And he promised to “transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” Unfortunately the president’s scorecard on every single one of those bold pledges is pitiful.

Many voters may disagree with Ferguson’s answer, but there can be little doubt he is asking the right question. It takes various forms, but it is always the same one. Where’s the beef? Show me the money? Where are the jobs?

The campaign organization that Thrush describes may be terminally self-referential, one that thinks it is about itself; that if David Axelrod’s mustache were a little more luxuriant, or Joe Biden’s phraseology more fortunate, or the president’s delivery more forceful, then all would be well. It would not. There would still be no money and still no jobs.

In the heyday of his 2008 campaign Obama declared: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Maybe there was more to it than just showing up. But it’s hard to convince people who’ve had a magic moment that time doesn’t stand still. As far as they’re concerned, they think they’re still big. “It’s just the pictures that got small.”


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