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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."