Straw Men

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. 

Presented by

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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