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Blaming staff for structural problems

Topics: 2010 , Barack Obama

Back in January, I predicted a rash of process-based explanations of President Obama's declining political fortunes in 2010:

During the next eleven months, it will become increasingly obvious that Democrats face an unfavorable political environment and that President Obama's approval ratings are trending downward. Inside the Beltway, these outcomes will be interpreted as evidence that the Obama administration has made poor strategic choices or that the President isn't "connecting" with the American public. Hundreds of hours will be spent constructing elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament.

Within two weeks, the narratives about Obama not "connecting" arrived thanks to Scott Brown's victory in the special election for the open Senate seat in Massachusetts.

It's now been about a month since I wrote the original post. After tiring of the "not connecting" narrative, the press has now moved on to blaming Obama's advisors for his political problems. Congressional Democrats have quickly gotten on board, implausibly blaming Rahm Emanuel for not targeting more conservative Senate Republicans on health care.

Obama's staff certainly has made mistakes, but I doubt they are the principal cause of the administration's problems. As I've pointed out before, good fundamentals make political strategists look like geniuses and bad fundamentals make the same strategists look like idiots. In other words, staff performance is largely a reflection of the political fundamentals (in particular, the economy), not the cause of a president's success or failure.

Unfortunately for Obama's staff, they're under siege from all sides. The political press needs a dramatic narrative in which the President's problems are the result of failed political tactics; Democrats need a scapegoat; and Republicans want a scalp (particularly Emanuel's). If the year doesn't go well for Obama, it's likely that someone will be thrown overboard.

PS I predict Mickey Kaus is ahead of the curve on phase three, which will be to blame Obama himself for poor strategic choices.

Update 2/12 9:14 AM: See also Peggy Noonan's column today, which points in a similar direction as Kaus (i.e. blaming Obama himself).

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com]

 

Comments
GARY WAGNER:

I wouldn't be too quick to look to Obama's staff as nothing more than innocent scapegoats. He has a really horrible staff. He made terrible choices and there is not a single major member of his staff that is not pulling him down. If he doesn't soon realize that Washington is not Chicago and he can't run the president Chicago politics style he will keep dropping in the polls.

Firing someone - anyone would instantly raise Obama's approval numbers. Right now a lot of people are wondering why on earth some of the people surrounding him haven't already been fired. Some think it is his arrogance - that he would never fire anyone because that would make it look like he was wrong for firing them.

The arrogance factor should be explored further. People don't like an smart ass (like his spokesperson, Gibbs), they don't like someone lecturing them on something they already know, and they don't like being treated like idiots who just aren't understanding the brilliance coming out of his mouth.

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AySz88:

Gary, to be honest, that seems less like an explanation and more like a bunch of snarky insults and talking points. Do you have any evidence for your assertions? I've seen nothing about people desiring someone be fired, and also nothing on "Chicago-style politics" (Does that even mean anything anymore?) having had anything to do with anything.

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Field Marshal:

AySz,

I believe Chicago style politics to mean shoving legislation down the peoples throats and if the legislators dont vote for it, hurting them in some way (not physically of course).

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GARY WAGNER:

Chicago style politics is more extortion than a political process. Look what Obama did with the banks. He launched an assault and threatened them with billions in penalties and taxes. Why did he just back off? I guarantee that those banks will be contributing heavily to democrat election campaigns this year. That's the Chicago way.

The Chicago way is also to destroy your opposition. That was Rahm's strategy going in. Google "Rahm Emanuel" and "Steak Knife" and look at how Obama's chief of staff plays Chicago style politics.

Obama was elected to the state senate only because he launched lawsuits and disqualified all of his opponents in the primary. He used his job as a community organizer to assure that he was the only one that would survive the lawsuits. That's Chicago style politics.

We all know how Blagoevich played Chicago style politics to sell Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder.

The rumblings of democrat dissent is out there. There are calls for Brennan to be fired. Others want Emanuel out. Others want Gibbs gone because even the liberal reporters are tired of his clowing and deflecting most of their questions.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"Chicago-style" sounds to me very similar to "massachusetts liberal" or "west coast liberal," etc.. It's a perjorative term. Republicans and conservatives excel at the use of them; disparaging someone because of where they're from is a specialty.

I will give them credit, since democrats are usually unable to counter such attacks.

Politics are corrupt in almost every state. Texas has it's fair share, what with Perry making all kinds of quid-pro-quo appointments to university boards of regents, etc...

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Aaron_in_TX:

Isn't Medina from the Victoria area? That is Ron Paul's district if I'm not mistaken.

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