Barack Obama’s ground zero masterstroke

17 August 2010

I suppose Barack Obama has never been famous for his tactical subtlety.

You could argue otherwise – unlike many people he and his team saw through the clusterfuck that was Super Tuesday in 2008 – but Washington’s a pretty myopic town and the primary system is above all just an annoying long division problem. (If two trains leave New York at 8 and Chicago at 8:30, how much debt can Hillary Clinton rack up before they crash?) You don’t get points for remembering the primary campaign goes on after the first week of February.

He was always a brilliant communicator – but never a subtle one. The hope and change stuff and the Socialist Realist campaign posters, the Jeremiah Wright speech and the Inauguration – all very stirring, but for the unmoved it felt like being bludgeoned by a frozen sturgeon. The campaign took hold of the economic crisis with a certain deftness but between that and Sarah Palin the pieces settled themselves by election night.

Fairly, he’s not had the easiest time since, and accomplishing any policy goals in the face of the recession has to be rated a kind of success. But his administration has not been a study in effective communication or political artistry, especially considering just how powerless the Republican opposition was (and how risky the strategy of No). The White House allowed the debate on health care and (fatally) climate change to drag on and on and then seemingly capitulated at the last moment more from exhaustion than anything else. On gay marriage, Gitmo and even Afghanistan they haven’t engaged much at all. (That or they’re playing a game so deep and well-managed that not even their own people are aware of it.) In this he’s a victim of his own success. Government is about as much shady compromise as grand gesture but he was far too good at conjuring elaborate images of a grand political breakthrough embodied in his campaign. (Which the left especially thought meant it got to win everything.) It was as stupid to propose as it was to believe, but the bottom line is that once more the victories are measured in yards rather than miles.

You might think, then, that this Cordoba House Mosque issue is the latest in a long series of own goals by the Obama team. Certainly that’s the immediate consensus. The Post quotes a political asshole saying

He is right on principle, but he will get slaughtered on the politics.

Note the implicit divorce of the two. So heartening.

Certainly, the consensus is in favor of this conclusion. Harry Reid already jumped ship, as did that guy in Louisiana who can’t get traction in the Bible Belt against a Republican Senator who visited prostitutes. While Obama gets credit for standing on principle – expressed darkly, in embarassed whispers, because nothing in Washington is more socially uncomfortable than a principle – it is accompanied by heaps of opprobrium. Has he, indeed, decided the midterms are a lost cause? Has he gone off the reservation? Is there a civil war in the White House?

No. Somebody did their job, and in a way that united morality and Machiavellianism.

Consider that right now the Obama White House is a spent force. In a rush of activity since early 2009 it depleted the vast amounts of political capital accumulated in the election, most of it ironically a direct result of the decision it least wished to take – passing the stimulus and its resulting debts. What wasn’t lost in the policy pushes that followed pretty decisively disappeared in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Now we’re well into the midterm elections and far from ignoring Obama the fear is that he will be an albatross around the necks of Congressional Democrats, facing down a public who, though unsold on the New Coke Republican Party, feel they have the option of a broadly consequence-free vote against them. Big majorities have that downside. The left, professional or otherwise, are irritated at the White House’s weakness in the face of its own moderates and perceived lack of principle in enforcing its beliefs, let alone its campaign promises.

What’s a president to do? Take a stand in favor of the Ground Zero Mosque. At a stroke you recapture the moral high ground with your own supporters by doing something pure as new snow. You also provide a harmless wedge issue to to your own party, allowing embattled candidates in swing states to implant a dash of populism into their own campaigns and starkly illustrate their independence from the White House on an issue which, despite high salience and high emotions, they can’t effect anyway. You open up a juicy forum for Republicans or Republican supporters to say something racist on television and, since it’s a mosque, create the opening for renewed birther questions directed at GOP congressional candidates – or better still, accusations that Obama’s a secret Muslim (torrid break with his pastor notwithstanding). Any one of these is lose-lose for a politician who dares wade into the mix. It distracts from the debt, from health care, from climate change and from financial services reform, all issues for which Democrats have gotten stick on the road; and best of all it gives candidates for the perennially-unpopular Congress the chance to talk about something Congress didn’t do – and that nobody blames it for. How often does that happen?

The bottom line is Obama hit on a move at once shrewd, highly principled and politically selfless. If indications are correct he did so on his own instinct and without the intervention of advisors. If so he should keep going, the braying of the shriller parts of the commentariat notwithstanding. Given that his staff have come under near constant criticism for their style of management, and given the endless complaints about his Administration’s political opportunism, it might not be bad for Obama to, as Simon sneerily puts it, “[take] seriously all the ‘change’ stuff he promised during the campaign.” The American people certainly did.

And, by the way, it might just keep him a Democratic Congress.

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