Obama ignores D.C. echo chamber. Should he?
From the time that then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama made the decision to run for president in early 2007 until today, the Democrat and his team have held firm to one core belief about the political-media world: the D.C. chattering class doesn’t have any idea what regular people think.
It was pundits who predicted that Obama could never beat then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary, talking heads who declared the race over when Obama was stuck in place in December 2007 and professional talkers who speculated that his relatively thin political resume would be a handicap against Sen. John McCain in the 2008 general election.
That Obama won the White House — convincingly — was an affirmation of the idea that D.C. was hopelessly out of touch.
“In Obamaland, the belief is that the priorities for regular Americans are very different from what Beltway pundits focus on,” said Bill Burton, a former White House senior aide and now the head of Priorities USA, a Democratic aligned super PAC. “That is basically always true.”
Fast forward three years from the election to now. Obama finds himself at the lowest point of his presidency — if polls are to be believed — and facing down criticism from the political class regarding his strategic approach and stories that seem to point to unrest within his own staff.
The White House’s response is predictable. Ho hum. But what if Obama and his advisers are wrong?
“The D.C. echo chamber is not always wrong, sometimes it is very correct,” said former Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, the former head of the Texas Democratic campaign arm. “I can’t guess about their real attitude though they do need to bring some new people into the White House who were not there at the creation but do have good judgment and good ideas.”
Others, who spoke only under the condition of anonymity (natch), were more blunt. “If they listened to any of the rest of the country they’d know it’s not just D.C.,” said one Democratic consultant. “If you think you’re never wrong, nobody is ever going to think you’re right.”
Despite the growing dissent in some Democratic circles, the Obama administration’s stay-the-course approach seems unlikely to change any time soon.
Making wholesale staff changes — as recommended by Democratic strategist James Carville in a much-discussed op-ed for CNN on Thursday — is viewed by the White House as overly reactive, surrendering to a conversation that doesn’t extend beyond the Beltway.
Staff changes also amount to the ultimate process story, a narrative focused entirely on personalities and entirely missing the nuts-and-bolts of policy. (Politicians — of both parties — hate process stories. Reporters love them.)
Average people, the White House argues, care almost not-at-all about the palace intrigue that so dominates official Washington — particularly at a time of considerable economic turmoil — and so bowing to the whims of the D.C. political class amounts to putting the cart way before the horse.
Of course, symbolic changes are, sometimes, necessary. One needs only look at the number of coaches fired from college and professional sports teams every year to see that sometimes a high-profile person must be sacrificed as a sign to people that “yeah, we get it and we are making changes.”
Michael Feldman, a veteran Democratic campaign operative, suggested that seeking middle ground is probably the right approach.
“I think the trick is to understand the echo chamber, participate and try to shape their opinion, but not to become consumed by it,” Feldman said. “It’s an important filter, but if you become obsessed with it, it can throw off your political GPS.”
Regardless of whether the White House believes that sentiment, those expecting some sort of staff overhaul in the face of an increasingly negative political environment are likely to be sorely disappointed.
It’s also possible, however, that the White House and Obama’s campaign strategists will look back at this moment in a year’s time and wonder whether the D.C. political class actually stumbled upon a small piece of widsom. Or maybe it won’t.
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