I always enjoy Camille Paglia's gently understated commentaries in Salon, and this one, divided about equally between her views on how Obama is doing and the joys of carnival in Salvador da Bahia, was no exception. "Oh, the incestuous mediocrity of American politics and media--compared to the splendors of Brazil!" My sentiment exactly, though they pay me to focus on the first.

Free Barack!

Yes, free the president from his flacks, fixers and goons -- his posse of smirky smart alecks and provincial rubes, who were shrewd enough to beat the slow, pompous Clintons in the mano-a-mano primaries but who seem like dazed lost lambs in the brave new world of federal legislation and global statesmanship.

Heads should be rolling at the White House for the embarrassing series of flubs that have overshadowed President Obama's first seven weeks in office...

First it was that chaotic pig rut of a stimulus package, which let House Democrats throw a thousand crazy kitchen sinks into what should have been a focused blueprint for economic recovery. Then it was the stunt of unnerving Wall Street by sending out a shrill duo of slick geeks (Timothy Geithner and Peter Orszag) as the administration's weirdly adolescent spokesmen on economics. Who could ever have confidence in that sorry pair?...

President Obama--in whom I still have great hope and confidence--has been ill-served by his advisors and staff... Though every novice administration makes blunders and bloopers, its modus operandi should not be a conspiratorial reflex cynicism.

Case in point: The orchestrated attack on radio host Rush Limbaugh, which has made the White House look like an oafish bunch of drunken frat boys... This entire fracas was set off by the president himself, who lowered his office by targeting a private citizen by name.

Peter Orszag a geek? Surely not. But the dangerous trait that Paglia correctly puts her finger on, I think, is the propensity of some of the people round Obama to smirking smart-aleckry.

The Limbaugh nonsense was an excellent example. As the FT said last week:

Shortly before Mr Obama was sworn in, Mr Limbaugh, affirming his opposition to big government, said he wanted the new president to fail - not an especially surprising disclosure, you might suppose. Leading Democrats, recalling how they rallied round George W. Bush, recoiled in horror. They were shocked, shocked, to think that Mr Limbaugh might sink so low, especially since, as the White House has noted, he is now, in effect, the leader of the Republican party. Democrats are challenging Republicans to disagree with Mr Limbaugh: "Go on, say you want the president to fail. Dare you to say it."

The White House and its advisers orchestrated this pantomime to embarrass the Republican party. Mr Limbaugh is delighted with his starring role. The stratagem succeeded, but do the president's men not have more important work to do? In his inaugural address - how long ago that seems - Mr Obama said he wanted a new way of doing business in Washington, and that it was "time to put away childish things". Things like this, Mr President.

As for the Republicans, the egregious Mr Limbaugh is obviously not in charge, but the accusation stings because neither is anybody else. The opposition party is a shambles - leaderless, intellectually paralysed and incapable of doing its job. It is bad for the country, but at least the grown-ups in the White House are loving it.

Politico laid out how the Carville-Begala-Emanuel axis came up with the Limbaugh stratagem. I now think it may have backfired--not least because of the principals' smirking non-denials. At the time I was struck by this comment in a Washington Post report:

Emanuel could not suppress a chuckle when asked in an interview why he went after Limbaugh. "I was complimenting him," he said. "But he is the head of their party."

"Could not suppress a chuckle." Like Robert Gibbs "quipped" about Michael Steele apologizing to Limbaugh, "head of the Republican party".

This evident delight in political game-playing hardly sits well with Obama's "new Washington". (It brings to mind the clever but ultimately self-defeating spinning of Alastair Campbell, and the resulting erosion of trust in Tony Blair.) The administration's inessential personnel need to be brought under control. There's a terrible recession going on. Save the quipping and chuckling for later.

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