Straw Men

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You can forgive President Obama, struggling with Congress for the first time as the Oval Office occupant, for resorting to a debating tactic that would make my high school forensics teacher, Dean Rhoads, scowl.  Of a large basket of his opponents, the President said:   

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing. Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

I don't doubt Obama's sincerity either, but, well, straw men are made of sterner stuff.

Except for a Republicans on the fringe, the opposition party did want to do something: they wanted more tax cuts and fewer spending. (It is true that, as the debate went along, Republicans seemed to suddenly have as much trouble with the size of the package as with its composition - and if that sounds dirty, it's meant to be.)  Obama has regularly described these policy prescriptions as "failed;" there wasn't a need to mischaracterize.  What was it about the debate that pressured President Obama to appear to exaggerate the nature of Republican opposition?

It may have been the polls.  Internal polling conducted for the DNC and passed along to the White House confirmed public polling: overwhelmingly, Americans wanted Congress to "do something."  Casting your opponents as wanting to "do nothing" was a neat trick, and one that might have been intended to obscure a policy debate that had gotten away from the White House, at least temporarily.   Another neat trick: portraying opposition as "well meaning" and just the same old politics, as if the election, once and for all, completely sealed off the White House from mere politics, and completely ratified Democratic political principles as ideology-free.   Democrats respond to these assertions by pointing out, correctly, that the practical effect of Republican opposition was wholly political: if they'd succeeded in peeling off a Democratic senator, the works would be gummed up and Obama wouldn't get his stimulus and nothing would be done.  

Besides, they say, the President and his chief political adviser, David Axelrod, can be forgiven for seeking to make explicit the contrasts they perceived.  Make no mistake: the Axelrod to Obama channel is broadcasting loudly these days, much to Obama's benefit. 

Indeed, Axelrod has a similar habit of discovering new opponents, a tendency that manifested itself at various points in the presidential campaign.  Obama's going through a rough patch; the cable news networks are Availability Biasing the present, turning bumps in the road into insurmountable boulders, reporters are asking normal questions, and - boom - persecution complex . Washington thinks one thing, but Obama thinks another. The smelly denizens of the Beltway are totally out of touch with the American people.  The American people know exactly what Obama is doing.  Washington's ways are the problem.  And so on. 

I used to think this was intellectually dishonest.  Why would such a sophisticated campaign fall into such cliché caricature?  Then I realized that Axelrod really believed it. And because he turned out to be right more often than not - Obama did have a long-term strategy; the American people did possess a subtlety that the press corps forgets - he deservedly gets a little bit of a pass. 

Lest you think I'm being uncharitable,  let me also say that Axelrod's self-preservation instincts, his  ability to read routes, his insistence on ethics and accountability, all these were critical to  Obama's political success.  (The first senior White House official to counsel Obama to say he screwed up when Tom Daschle's tax problems exposed a double standard, was, I am told, Axelrod.)

Conversely, Mr. Axelrod's supreme attention to The Narrative of Barack Obama is, I must say, admirable and annoying to those of us who try to see shades of gray.

It was jarring to read Axelrod channel Frank Rich, in a column by, uh, Frank Rich:

On Wednesday, as a stimulus deal became a certainty on Capitol Hill, I asked David Axelrod for his take on this Groundhog Day relationship between Obama and the political culture.

"It's why our campaign was not based in Washington but in Chicago," he said. "We were somewhat insulated from the echo chamber. In the summer of '07, the conventional wisdom was that Obama was a shooting star; his campaign was irretrievably lost; it was a ludicrous strategy to focus on Iowa; and we were falling further and further behind in the national polls." But even after the Iowa victory, this same syndrome kept repeating itself. When Obama came out against the gas-tax holiday supported by both McCain and Clinton last spring, Axelrod recalled, "everyone in D.C. thought we were committing suicide."

The stimulus battle was more of the same. "This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking," he says. Once the frenzy got going, it didn't matter that most polls showed support for Obama and his economic package: "If you watched cable TV, you'd see our support was plummeting, we were in trouble. It was almost like living in a parallel universe."

For Axelrod, the moral is "not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think."

For one thing, these dastardly cable networks get a lot of love from Obama advisers. (How many times has a senior official appeared on Morning Joe since the inauguration?  More than  a half dozen?)

For another, the "punditocracy," as Rich calls it, did not uniformly pronounce rites upon Obama's opposition to the gas tax holiday;  in fact, the opposite was true. They agreed with it substantively and believed it would work properly. 

For another, the punditocracy was at least half right: the White House had to change gears. They believed they'd get GOP support. They didn't. They scrambled to ramp up a communications strategy that proved, yes, successful.  

For another, the p-tocracy doesn't exist in the way Axe and Rich believe it does. There are so many different types of pundits, analysts and reporters, all broadcasting to an immensely sophisticated audience that sifts, filters and chooses what to believe. (Most (non-conservative) op-ed columnists weren't hysterical about the White House's growing pains, for example.)

Obama's winning, and he has plenty of political enemies.  Why the need to find them where they aren't?

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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