Fatuous-Gossip Watch 2012: The Obama Campaign in Disarray!

Or is it? A staple genre of the new media leaves us to wonder.


Obama chats with David Axelrod at a basketball game in 2010. (Reuters)

When I ran into David Axelrod at a White Sox-Yankees game Tuesday night, President Obama's reelection strategist was delayed in getting to a concourse with food and bathrooms by Sox fans craving to have their picture taken with him.

Imagine, I joked, how much more famous he'd be if Stephanie Cutter, another Obama campaign official, hadn't supposedly stolen a Sunday morning TV appearance meant for him!

He rolled his eyes, knowing I was alluding to a rather breathless disclosure in Obama's Last Stand, an e-book just published by Politico and Random House that's a tidy example of the now unavoidable journalism staple of "inside" takes on the discord and untidiness of a presidential campaign.

In this case, readers are told that a campaign organization lauded four years ago for cohesion is now "shadowed by a succession of political disagreements and personal rivalries that haunted the effort at the outset."

Since the genre is bipartisan, rest assured that the Romney campaign will get similar dissections both during and after the campaign, with November's loser the guaranteed target of the most critical accounts. The obsession with internal process and tactics is now the coin of the realm, especially among Washington political reporters who may lose sight of one reality: Voters don't care.

That may be tough for some of them to take, suggesting that much of what they can proudly report is irrelevant. But I suspect that if I had gone up to any of the self-proclaimed Obama supporters encircling Axelrod a few sections down the left-field line at U.S. Cellular Field, they would not have cared a whit about, say, this revelation in the new ebook when it comes to Axelrod and Cutter:

The spark, according to people close to the situation: Axelrod suspected Cutter of taking a network TV appearance he had been asked to do. The conflict -- well-known inside Obamaland but not outside the inner circle -- was really the reflection of a grinding campaign, Cutter's propensity for stepping on toes, and Axelrod's elliptical and disorganized management style.

The e-book is a well-intentioned example of the relatively new species of instant inside history. In days of yore, we'd await the end of a campaign, and an actual Election Day result, to sample a genre made famous by Theodore White, a journalist-historian, in his Making of the President series. Now we have a rolling account perfectly suited for our Twitter universe.

While this account may be irresistible to political junkies, it also may not have a whole lot to do with how voters make their choices.

When I suggested this to John Mark Hansen, dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago and a prominent political scientist, he said, "I give even less credit to reports about the campaigns than you do. Every campaign is completely chaotic, everybody is in a panic, and every campaign is beset by tensions and rivalries. Nothing creates genius better than winning (see: James Carville and Karl Rove); nothing makes one look incompetent more than losing (see: Kerry's advisers, McCain's advisers)."

As Hansen has written, modern political science has devoted its greatest energy to the study of elections and "Voters only intermittently pay attention to campaigns, so most of what happens in a campaign has little effect on voters' choices. Voters make their decision whenever they feel they have enough information to make a choice. For many, the decision is not very difficult."

What happens in so many inside-the-campaign accounts is that they transform reports of internal disagreements into prime facie evidence of crucial, even fatal, strategic errors. Yes, feuding and jealousies can undermine any endeavor, be it a corner drug store, college volleyball team, or a political race. But when very smart and highly competitive people work in close, high-stakes, and high-profile quarters, some conflict is inevitable. It might even happen at The Atlantic.

Ask editors here, or at Politico or the Washington Post, if they have ever confronted anything of the sort in their newsrooms. While you're at it, ask executives at Google, Facebook, General Motors, or Dairy Queen.

"Obama Campaign Roiled by Conflict" was Politico's grabby headline on its own book. But it ultimately doesn't seem quite the right fit for what follows it.

That's partly because, after reading the e-book, one might be left with a sense of Obama very much in control of his campaign, even micromanaging it. He allegedly gets pissed off at one of his own consultants for seemingly self-serving comments to the New York Times. He dispatches two White House aides to Chicago to deal with tensions with the reelection headquarters there. And, most of all, he seems to be playing to win.

You can fret, as even Democratic loyalists do, that the campaign is overtly cynical and tactical and removed from dealing with Real Questions -- for example, what are the many specific cuts Democrats would make to deal with our budget mess? But even after reading this instantaneous history, you'd be hard-pressed to deny that this campaign has an attentive boss with a distinct game plan.

Presented by

James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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