March 4, 2010 in Opinion

Sorting out fact and fiction

David S. Broder
 

In the space of 10 days, thanks in no small part to my own newspaper, the Washington Post, the president of the United States has been portrayed as a weakling and a chronic screw-up who is wrecking his administration despite everything that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, can do to make things right.

This remarkable fiction began unfolding on Feb. 21 in the Post op-ed column of my friend Dana Milbank, who wrote that “Obama’s first year fell apart in large part because he didn’t follow his chief of staff’s advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter,” i.e., a one-term failure.

A week later, presumably the same anonymous sources convinced Milbank to pronounce that Barack Obama “too often plays the 98-pound weakling; he gets sand kicked in his face and responds with moot-court zingers.”

And on Tuesday, the Post led the paper with a purported news story by Jason Horowitz saying that a president with Obama’s “detached, professorial manner” needed “a political enforcer” like Emanuel to have a chance of succeeding, “because he (Emanuel) possessed a unique understanding of the legislative mind.” Unfortunately, the story said, “influential Democrats are – in unusually frank terms – blaming Obama and his closest campaign aides for not listening to Emanuel.”

It sounded, for all the world, like the kind of orchestrated leaks that often precede a forced resignation in Washington.

Except that the chief of staff doesn’t usually force the president out. When George H.W. Bush had had enough of John H. Sununu, of course it was Sununu who walked. Maybe the sources on these stories think Obama is the one who should leave.

Here in a few paragraphs is what others high in the White House think is going on:

The underlying problem, in their eyes, is a badly damaged economy that has sunk Obama’s poll numbers and emboldened Republicans to blockade his legislative program.

Emanuel, who left a leadership post in the House to serve his fellow Chicagoan, Obama, has worked loyally for the president, and is not suspected personally by his colleagues of inspiring these Post pieces.

But, as one of them said to me, “Rahm likes to win,” and when the losses began to pile up, he probably vented his frustrations to some of his old pals in Congress. It’s clear that some of them are talking to the press.

There are good grounds for questioning the legislative strategy and tactics of this White House – just as there have been with other administrations. A president who sets out to engineer large-scale changes in basic economic, social and legal structures at the same time he is fighting two wars and dealing with the fallout from a fiscal calamity is risking defeat. Obama has courted that risk knowingly because he thinks – as I do – the nation really is in peril. His party in Congress and its leadership are too often more narrow-minded and parochial than the president. And the Republicans have chosen the easy path of near-unanimous opposition.

None of this would rise above the level of petty Washington gossip, except that some of Emanuel’s friends are so eager to exonerate him that they are threatening to undermine the president. Milbank, presumably reflecting what he hears, calls Obama “airy and idealistic” and says he readily succumbs to “bullying” from Republicans and Democrats alike. I hope the mullahs in Iran don’t believe this.

From too many years of covering politics, I have come to believe as Axiom One that the absolute worst advice politicians ever receive comes from journalists who fancy themselves great campaign strategists.

Milbank now is urging Obama to emulate Gordon Brown, who is probably just weeks away from being voted out as Britain’s prime minister, and start bullying people himself. That is – well, it’s in the great tradition.

David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.


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