We’re seeing growing sings that all is most certainly not well in the Camelot Part Deux that liberals wanted to recreate in the Obama White House. Obama himself is cracking under the stress, smoking too much and drinking too much. I think we’d all like it if the man who had the responsibility of imposing his will on an Iran determined to develop nuclear ICBMs had at least enough willpower to impose his will on the next pack of cigarettes. Meanwhile, Obama’s Chicago-thug “fearsome foursome” who form his paranoid inner circle are taking all kinds of heat – and showing signs of meltdown from all the gear-clashing.
Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel – Mr. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” himself – has been under fire from liberals who want to blame him for the near-total failure Obama’s first year has been. But Emanuel has some allies in the press as well, who have come out to make a strong defense (mayhap with Rahm’s help?) at the direct expense of Obama. I mean, the mainstream media is blaming the failure of the Obama administration on Emanuel’s lack of discipline and management skills, while other parts of the mainstream media argue that Rahm Emanuel is the only thing preventing Obama from ending up worse than Jimmy Carter. I mean, you know there are a lot of hurt feelings and dead bodies in closets at the White House with this stuff going on.
And now we see the glue is coming off the veneer of David Axelrod, too.
March 6, 2010
Obama Message Maven Finds Fingers Pointing at Him
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON — David Axelrod was sitting at his desk on a recent afternoon — tie crooked, eyes droopy and looking more burdened than usual. He had just been watching some genius on MSNBC insist that he and President Obama’s other top aides were failing miserably and should be replaced.
“Typical Washington junk we have to deal with,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview. The president is deft at blocking out such noise, he added, suddenly brightening. “I love the guy,” he said, and in the space of five minutes, repeated the sentiment twice.
Critics, pointing to the administration’s stalled legislative agenda, falling poll numbers and muddled messaging, suggest that kind of devotion is part of the problem at the White House. Recent news reports have cast the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as the administration’s chief pragmatist, and Mr. Axelrod, by implication, as something of a swooning loyalist. A “Moonie,” dismissed Mr. Axelrod’s close friend, former Commerce Secretary William Daley. Or as the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, joked, “the guy who walks in front of the president with rose petals.”
Still, it is a charge that infuriates Mr. Axelrod, the president’s closest aide, longest-serving adviser and political alter ego. “I guess I have been castigated for believing too deeply in the president,” he said, lapsing into the sarcasm he tends to deploy when playing defense.
No one has taken the perceived failings of the administration more personally or shown the strain as plainly as Mr. Axelrod, who as White House senior adviser oversees every aspect of how Mr. Obama is presented. As such, Mr. Axelrod, the president’s mustachioed message maven, has felt the brunt of criticism over what many view as the administration’s failure to clearly define and disseminate Mr. Obama’s agenda and accomplishments for the country.
“The Obama White House has lost the narrative in the way that the Obama campaign never did,” said James Morone, a political scientist at Brown University. “They essentially took the president’s great strength as a messenger and failed to use it smartly.”
Mr. Axelrod said he accepts some blame for what he called “communication failures,” though he acknowledges bafflement that the administration’s efforts to stimulate the economy in a crisis, overhaul health care and prosecute two wars have been so routinely framed by opponents as the handiwork of a big-government, soft-on-terrorism, politics-of-the-past ideologue.
“For me, the question is, why haven’t we broken through more than we have?” Mr. Axelrod said. “Why haven’t we broken through?”
That question has dogged Mr. Axelrod in recent months and has preoccupied Mr. Obama’s inner circle, fueling speculation that the vaunted “No Drama Obama” team might be fracturing. Not surprisingly, the White House has no patience with the notion.
“You guys want to fit people into boxes and categories that are just not accurate,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Axelrod would not discuss what counsel he offered to Mr. Obama, though he denies any “fissure with my buddy Rahm” and any charge that he is too infatuated with the president to recognize the political risks of his ambitious agenda.
“Believe me, if we were charting this administration as a political exercise, the first thing we would have done would not have been a massive recovery act, stabilizing the banks and helping to keep the auto companies from collapsing,” he said. “Those would not even be the first hundred things he would want to do.”
But Mr. Axelrod argued that the president, confronted with “breathtaking challenges,” did not have the luxury of moving more slowly or methodically.
In a lengthy interview in his office on Wednesday, Mr. Axelrod was often defiant, saying he did not give a “flying” expletive “about what the peanut gallery thinks” and did not live for the approval “of the political community.” He denounced the “rampant lack of responsibility” of people in Washington who refuse to solve problems, and cited the difficulty of trying to communicate through what he calls “the dirty filter” of a city suffused with the “every day is Election Day sort of mentality.”
When asked how he would assess his performance, Mr. Axelrod shrugged. “I’m not going to judge myself on that score,” he said. But then he shot back: “Have I succeeded in reversing a 30-year trend of skepticism and cynicism about government? I confess that I have not. Maybe next year.”
The criticism of the administration’s communication strategy — leveled by impatient Democrats, gleeful Republicans, bloggers and cable chatterers — clearly stings Mr. Axelrod, as well as the circle of family, friends and fans he has acquired over three decades in politics as a consultant and, before that, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune.
“Every time I hear that the White House is getting the message wrong, it breaks my heart,” said Mr. Axelrod’s sister, Joan, an educational therapist in Boston. “I know he agonizes.”
Ms. Axelrod says that while her brother is devoted to Mr. Obama, he is not a sycophant. She paused when asked whether he admired the president too much. “He is very, very loyal, sometimes to a fault,” she said.
Added Mr. Gibbs: “The list of people who have to deliver bad news to the president is very small, and David is first on that list. I’m probably second.”
Mr. Axelrod’s friends worry about the toll of his job — citing his diet (cold-cut-enriched), his weight (20 pounds heavier than at the start of the presidential campaign), sleep deprivation (five fitful hours a night), separation from family (most back home in Chicago) and the fact that at 55, he is considerably older than many of the wunderkind workaholics of the West Wing. He wakes at 6 in his rented condominium just blocks from the White House and typically returns around 11.
Unlike other presidential alter egos, Mr. Axelrod is not viewed as a surrogate “brain” (like Karl Rove), a suspicious outsider (like Dick Morris in the Clinton White House) or a co-president (James Baker in the first Bush White House). Sometimes portrayed as a bare-knuckled Chicago operative, he is also a bantering walrus of a man in mustard-stained sleeves who describes himself as a “kibbitzer,” not a “policy guy.”
Sitting at his desk next door to the Oval Office last week, he was tearing into a five-inch corned beef sandwich on rye with a Flintstone-size turkey drumstick waiting on deck. “I am the poster child for the president’s obesity program,” he said.
A few minutes later, Mr. Obama walked in unannounced, scattering two aides like startled pigeons. “Hey,” Mr. Axelrod said by way of greeting (no “sir” or “Mr. President.”) Mr. Obama surveyed the spread on Mr. Axelrod’s desk with a slight smirk.
“What is this, King Arthur’s court?” he asked, then pulled Mr. Axelrod aside to talk about a health care speech he was about to deliver.
Mr. Axelrod is often at the president’s side; he sits in on policy and national security meetings and is routinely the last person he talks to before making a decision. He directs every aspect of the administration’s external presentation, overseeing polls, focus groups and speeches and appearing on the Sunday shows. Mr. Emanuel describes Mr. Axelrod as “an integrator of the three P’s” — press, policy and politics — “and how they make a whole.”
White House officials describe Mr. Axelrod’s focus as big themes rather than day-to-day sound bites. There has been no shortage of Democrats willing to second-guess his messaging approach.
“They made a big mistake right out of the box with the Inaugural Address,” said former Senator Bob Kerrey, adding that a president pledging bipartisanship should not have disparaged the previous administration in his speech, as many listeners believed Mr. Obama did.
Of course, they are continuing to make the same mistake of blaming Bush over and over and over again on a daily basis over a year later.
And that does go to the core of the Obama failure: the inability to match his rhetoric with reality, or even his rhetoric with his own rhetoric.
The man who pledged bipartisanship and a transcendent ability to reach across the divide and bring the country together has blamed and demonized the Bush administration and the Republican Party every single time he “reached.”
The man who promised transparency, who promised repeatedly to open up the entire “bipartisan” health care negotiations on C-SPAN, has not never even bothered to try to do so (and dang I wish I could have seen the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback, Gator-Aid, and various other acts of illegal political patronage being negotiated), but has routinely had closed door meetings which were not open to the press, the public, or certainly the Republicans. Meanwhile, the Democrats have been so byzantine, so secretive, so wheeling-dealing, that even senior Democrats have had to acknowledge they were completely in the dark as to what in the sam hill was going on.
And of course now we have the same Obama who basically said that reconciliation was a totalitarian act of “simply majoritarian absolute power” that was both unconstitutional and as partisan and evil as Karl Rove is, now saying that it’s okay as long as he’s doing it “to maintain his strong presidency.”
That’s just health care. You can take almost any other issue and find the same thing with Obama. Foreign policy? Take Renditions. Take Eavesdropping programs. Take the Patriot Act. Take Gitmo. Take the surge strategy. Take the Iraq War. Take the Iranian nuclear threat. And now, take military tribunals. In every single one of these cases Obama personally demonized the Bush position, and then did the same thing himself without ever once having the integrity to say that George Bush had been right and he had been wrong. Energy policy? Obama so completely abandoned his own stated energy policy promises that a senior Democrat was forced to say that Obama “is beginning not to be believable to me.”
I have to say I feel sorry for the messengers who are being hounded for not being able to get the White House message out: it’s full of lies and deceit; how do you make all the Obama lies look good without telling a whole bunch of other lies?
Then you’ve got the fact that a whole bunch of Democrats across the spectrum are just furious with the Obama administration for massively expensive policies that didn’t work and for sheer flagrant incompetence.
How do you make a turd look good?
The one word that most accurately frames this piece is, “Wah.” The people who most successfully demagogued mainstream media narratives when it came to George Bush and Republicans are the biggest bunch of thin-skinned whining crybabies I’ve ever seen. Someone else is ALWAYS to blame with these people.
And when they demonize Republicans for their criticisms when the Obama team has done nothing BUT demonize Bush and Republicans, it is beyond disgusting and even beyond despicable.
What couldn’t be more obvious about Obama’s inner circle – political rather than policy experts all – is that all they can do well is campaign. So they constantly campaign in campaign mode, and then cry the moment anybody suggests they’re doing anything because of “politics.” I mean, think about it: the same man who lambasts the press for their “every day is Election Day sort of mentality,” is the guy who is closer than anyone to Obama – and who spends all his time as the “integrator of the three P’s” — press, policy and politics — “and how they make a whole.”
I mean, how DARE you people accurately describe us as what we are, and consider policies from the same uber-political perspective that WE consider them. HOW DARE YOU!
The Obama inner circle lives in a bunker and embraces a “bunker-view mentality” to the world. In contradiction to their statements to the contrary, they are hyper-hyper sensitive to any skepticism at all. And their growing problem is that the nastiest skepticism of all isn’t coming from “the right” or from Fox News, but from their very own left and from media that should be in their pockets.
I don’t know how long it’s going to take before it happens, but this president and this inner White House circle are heading for a meltdown of epic proportions.