Friday, January 29, 2010

White House Taking More Flak From Its Political Allies

By Stuart Rothenberg

It isn’t surprising that Republican Members of Congress and their talking heads on television slam the Obama administration every day. Given the partisan divide, that’s probably inevitable.

But what is surprising is the growing criticism coming from Democratic circles and from party political insiders of President Barack Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and the White House’s political operation. Not surprisingly, the criticism is coming only on a not-for-attribution basis.

Some Democrats blame what they call the White House’s political tin ear on the nature of the office.

“It’s hard when you live in this area to understand how bad it is out there,” one veteran Washington, D.C., Democrat told me recently. “People want jobs. They know that it will take time, but they want to be certain that we are working on it.”

The same Democrat noted that this administration, like others, can’t always count on people telling the president how bad things are outside the Beltway. “When the White House calls, most people figure that to get another call, they better give good news. Tell them how bad things are, and they’ll never call you again.”

Another Democrat was more pointed about placing blame.

“The political operation [in the White House] is a true disaster. Until Dave Plouffe, nobody’s job was to watch the politics. Rahm missed Massachusetts,” this person said.

Rahm Emanuel, whose successes at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are now part of Democratic Party lore and who was the ultimate Capitol Hill insider, missed Massachusetts? But isn’t he always obsessed with the politics of any issue? Isn’t that part of the reason why Rahm is such an asset at the White House?

“It’s the Myth of Rahm,” observed one critical Democrat about the White House chief of staff, who has a bigger-than-life reputation in Washington, D.C.

But blaming Emanuel doesn’t answer the question entirely. The national media, after all, likes to build people up more than they deserve and tear them down more than warranted. It’s what most in the media do. Karl Rove was once considered to be a political genius until things went south for the Bush administration.

“The folks at the White House have been up to their eyes in policy, and that has meant less attention to politics,” said a thoughtful Democrat.

One problem, according to some observers, is that David Axelrod, a savvy political strategist who understands message and campaigns, has become an Obama “believer” and has lost some of the perspective he once had. Maybe the lesson is that the White House isn’t the best place to work to keep one’s critical eye.

Most Democrats seem to think that Plouffe’s new role as a political coordinator and facilitator could turn out to be a good move for the White House and for Democrats. But they wonder whether he really understands the difficult spot in which Democratic elected officials find themselves.

In his Jan. 24 Washington Post opinion piece, Plouffe urged his fellow Democrats to avoid “bed-wetting.” “Instead of fearing what may happen,” he wrote, “let’s prove that we have more than just the brains to govern — that we have the guts to govern.”

Plouffe’s comment was followed a few days later by a similar observation from the president, who told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer that “there is a tendency in Washington to believe that our job description, as elected officials, is to get re-elected. That’s not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and help people.”

The implication, of course, is that Members of Congress shouldn’t care what their constituents think and that they should support the president’s agenda even if it hurts them at the polls.

But most Democrats around Capitol Hill who have been fighting in the political trenches around the country have a very different view of what has been going on.

“These [Democratic Members] have been taking a lot of tough votes. I haven’t seen a lot of bed-wetting going on,” responded one Democrat on the front lines.

“They want to get the heavy lifting done,” added another Democrat about the White House’s priorities. “They don’t care if it costs them the House, the Senate and governors.”

Of course, not everyone blames the president and his White House staff. Some think much of the blame should be placed on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“She is utterly tone-deaf. She is supposed to look out for her Members, not just make history. It’s reckless what she has done,” a Democratic campaign consultant told me.

Still, as Reggie Jackson used to say, we all know who the straw that stirs the drink is — it’s the president. It’s up to the White House to set the national agenda, and he ought to know when he’s an asset to his party and when he’s becoming a problem for them.

Yes, any president’s priority is enacting his agenda, not re-electing some Democratic Congressman from Alabama. But the White House won’t help its legislative agenda by its arrogance — by telling Members that the president can do no wrong and that it’s their duty to follow the Obama agenda.

That’s especially true if following his agenda means they will have to jump off a cliff this year while the president will have two more years, after November, to save himself politically.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on January 28, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.