A presidential misconception

Last week, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio delivered a stinging critique of the Obama administration’s economic policies. But the White House’s swift and tart reaction to Boehner was both illuminating and sadly predictable.

On the day of the speech, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer offered a “pre-buttal,” ripped from the playbook of a presidential campaign. Vice President Joe Biden joined the fray, donning his full-electoral jacket, reminding us once again that it was another president that got us into this mess.

Aiming a political fusillade at a specific congressional critique may seem normal in today’s rough-and-tumble 24-hour news cycle, but it’s a fundamentally flawed method of steering the ship of state.

Yet this tactical retort to a congressional appraisal was dismally emblematic of a broader governing style, demonstrating that the Obama White House fundamentally misunderstands the role of the presidency.

Presidents like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush occasionally, but rarely, engaged in personal tit-for-tat with congressional leaders. Whenever they did, it also weakened them and advanced their opponents. But this president has raised the practice to an art form.

Instead of positioning himself as the leader of the free world or as a post-partisan healer, Obama regularly inserts himself as a combative participant in Washington’s permanent campaign.

Maybe he thinks wading into culture-war battles or tactical political controversies reinforces his standing as a man of conviction. Opining about Harvard professor Skip Gates’s scrape with the law last summer and what it meant about race relations and law enforcement was one example.

His response to the Arizona immigration law reflected the same tactical thinking. Most recently, choosing to engage on the New York mosque controversy reinforced the pattern.

It’s like Obama created his own version of Newtonian physics: Every action deserves an equal reaction from the federal Leviathan. Each time it happens, it leads the White House far from the disciplined message march his campaign walked in the 2008 campaign.

These spontaneous outbursts of opinion are unnecessary, revealing and destructive. They are unnecessary because as president, he doesn’t need to engage in every local controversy. It paints him as man who doesn’t understand the nuanced differences between campaigning and governing.

Picking these fights is also destructive. Midterm politics/firing up the base tactics might explain some of his more recent forays. But Obama has followed these tactics from the early days of his presidency.

For example, sitting down in a room with a bunch of congressmen and senators at his “health care summit” also diminished his presidency. Announcing a compromise in the Rose Garden is one thing. Debating the merits of a “public option” at Blair House last year as if he was the 436th House member is quite another.

Why Obama purposely shrinks his stature leaves many scratching their heads. A Republican leadership aide underscored this point last week, reacting to the White House’s response to Boehner: “Any time the president engages in a debate like this with Congress, it diminishes him and elevates us. Why he consistently tries to do this, I just [don’t] understand.”

Presidential scholar Charles O. Jones, in his book “The Presidency in a Separated System,” offers this assessment about the lessons every White House needs to learn: “Newly elected presidents are fresh from an experience that is all-consuming and extraordinarily self-centered. A presidential campaign of perpetual motion focuses exclusively on the candidate.”

But campaigns don’t have eternal life. “It is at that precise point of triumph that a new leader must be the most disciplined in acknowledging the requirements of a transition from candidate to president,” Jones argues. “The first lesson, then, for a president in a separated system is to learn what is required to do the new job, understanding the campaign experiences and campaign workers have little to offer toward that end.”

If Obama and his staff ever take a breather from attacking John Boehner, finding new culture fights or figuring out new ways to inject the federal government into state and local questions, they should read Jones’s book.

 

This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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