Political Animal


April 20, 2012 8:45 AM “The New Toughness”

By Ed Kilgore

At TNR this morning, Noam Scheiber has an interesting account of how the Obama White House’s poltical operation has evolved as the 2012 elections approached. It has, in fact, begun to closely resemble Bil Clinton’s, and not just because there is some overlap in personnel.

As Scheiber explains it, this “new toughness” is partly attributable to the simple dynamics of the re-election cycle, but also partly to a growing realization that the president is not going to get any breaks from either the opposition or the MSM. So a considerble percentage of its resources is going into “War Room” counter-measures, and in general, the political team doesn’t worry much about perceptions of civility any more:

Perhaps the best way to measure the staying power of the new toughness is to observe how Team Obama responds these days to critics of the approach. During their first few years in office, senior aides would often fret when the paragons of respectable centrism derided Obama’s rhetoric as too harsh or his proposals as too liberal. This time around, as the likes of David Brooks were knuckle-rapping Obama over budgetary hyperbole in his AP speech, the White House doubled-down. Office of Management and Budget staffers mounted a furious behind-the-scenes response, ultimately fighting to a draw with a “half true” rating from the fact-checking site Politifact. Around the West Wing, much was made over this triumph. Hope and change it was not. But sometimes you have to be willing to settle for a small victory instead.

Yeah, at this stage the road to re-election for the president is likely to be a matter of small victories over a vast battleground of many days. Such a high percentage of the electorate is already locked into partisan and/or candidate preferences that anything more than small shifts in sentiment affecting small numbers of voters is probably an illusion. The atmosphere of history-making and near-heroism surrounding the 2008 Obama campaign may be all but gone, but so, too, is the fear and uncertainty that seemed to afflict the White House as much as it did Democrats generally going into the depths of the 2010 cycle.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Ron Byers on April 20, 2012 9:19 AM:

    Fear gone? Really? I am scared to death that the Republicans, relying on their billionaire funders, their coordinated propaganda machine, their very successful and barely challenged voter suppression drives and most importantly the abandonment of several states to the Republicans by a very old and decrepit Democratic party is going to result in at best the reelection of a President who will be gridlocked for at least the next two years and at worst by the election of a Republican pander monkey with no power or natural constituency. I truly fear for my country.

  • T2 on April 20, 2012 9:47 AM:

    Presidents tend to like being president, despite it all. A second term is always wanted, and for various reasons - finish unfinished business, lead the nation out of peril, end wars, secure a place in history, settle scores. At point X in a first term presidency, the incumbent realizes this and from that time on his focus changes. That point came late to Obama. Now the grand Hope of a first term turns into a grim march, a "win it" mentality. Obama seems to be in that mode now, and he needs to stay there. I'll bet that if tomorrow was election day, the vote would be quite close to what it will be in November.

  • Richard Greenslade on April 20, 2012 9:48 AM:

    I think large numbers of votes could be moved in Obama's favor by firing Ed DeMarco and allowing millions to refinance at lower rates with a partial writedown of principle. A slower but significant move favoring Obama could result simply from job creation at 200k per month.

    For Romney to get a big lift would require near-total economic meltdown or some crisis like (heaven forbid) an Israeli bombardment of Iran - one capable of rebooting the atmosphere of post 9-11 fear.

  • Diane Rodriguez on April 20, 2012 10:29 AM:

    The first Obama election was historic, exhilirating and underscored what we advertise as the real "American" values. 'nuff of that. I belief that one of Obama's greatest hurdles is PWB, being President while black. The privacy of the voting booth provides great cover for our worst and best intentions. I am hopeful that the principle applies when Republican women get in the booth and vote against Romney.

  • schtick on April 20, 2012 10:46 AM:

    It only took three and a half years for Obama to realize he wasn't going to get any kind of cooperation? I thought he was a smart man. Of course, he has plenty to lay out to the people for supporting dems in November. I just hope that after November he doesn't become so lame he thinks he can work with them again and get nothing done as a result.
    If he fails in any way, the tealiban will be back in full force and they will finish flushing this country down the sewer.

  • TCinLA on April 20, 2012 12:55 PM:

    Nice to see they have finally Gotten Real.

    Bon Byers: +10!!

  • Doug on April 20, 2012 10:48 PM:

    The only fear and uncertainty I recognized in 2010 was that of the Democratic members of Congress who were too frightened to run on their, quite respectable, legislative record. When incumbent candidates try to run a re-election campaign by, at best, ignoring what their party has accomplished and by keeping their party head at arms' length, they deserve what they get, electorally speaking. Unfortunately, those who lost their seats weren't the only ones to suffer. Nor do I see how Mr. Obama could have injected himself into campaigns where he obviously wasn't wanted.
    During 2009 and 2010, President Obama relied on Majority Leader Reid and (then)Speaker Pelosi to provide the votes for the legislation. They, usually, did. So why should President Obama have involved himself in the process if he wasn't needed? Any attempts by Reid or Pelosi to snag Republican votes would have appeared as a completely political move.
    President Obama however, and ANY President for that matter, is not only head of a party, but also Head of State. It's that latter position that allows the occupant of the WH to push for legislation in a less-than-completely partisan manner. Sometimes it works. LBJ managed to do it, Mr. Obama didn't. Although to be fair, the comparison isn't completely accurate as neither party in the mid-1960s was as monolithic as today's GOP.
    OF COURSE the Obama administration is going operate differently now than it did before. The circumstances today AREN'T the same as those of 2010 OR 2008 and it would be the greatest folly for the Obama administration to (re)act as if they were.
    The goal in 2008 was to get elected. It was accomplished. The goal(s) in 2009-10 was the passage of legislation. That was also accomplished. The goal in 2010 was maintain Democratic control of Congress. That was only partially successful. And the goal in 2012 is re-election.
    We'll find out if that goal is attainable next November...