So about that ‘permission structure’ …

Ah, "permission structures."

The now-famous term comes, as far as I can tell, from a 2008 profile of David Axelrod in the New Republic, where Jason Zengerle quoted Ken Snyder, a Democratic consultant and Axelrod protege, on his mentor’s approach. “David felt there almost had to be a permission structure set up for certain white voters to consider a black candidate.” The “permission structure” relied heavily on “third-party authentication,” which is to say, endorsements from respected figures or institutions that the targeted voters admired.

(EPA/Michael Reynolds)
So about that permission structure ... (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

If you think back to the 2008 campaign, you can see Axelrod slowly building this permission structure around Obama. Right before Super Tuesday, Axelrod rolled out the endorsements of Ted and Caroline Kennedy. Right before the election, he rolled out Colin Powell. The timing and nature of the endorsements were meant to make an African American candidate with an international upbringing and the name Barack Hussein Obama into someone that Ohio steelworkers could feel comfortable voting for. If Ted Kennedy and Colin Powell can back this guy, so can you.

At his news conference this week, President Obama trotted the idea out again, this time in reference to negotiating with congressional Republicans. "We’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country."

This bit of monologuing turned out to be a mistake. Obama's intention was to use the media as part of his permission structure. Instead, he got the media making fun of the term "permission structure." Sometimes it's best, when you're president, to let others take on the job of elevating subtext to text.

But as long as the idea is out there, read Brian Beutler's explanation of what, exactly, the White House has in mind. I just want to add one thing to his post: The role of the media.

If the president occasionally seems to be vying for the job of media-critic-in-chief, this is why. He thinks that if the media wasn't cowed into a pox-on-both-houses approach to covering politics, then it would act as a crucial part of the political permission structure. The American people want reasonable compromise, Obama believes, and if the media was clearer on the fact that Republicans were refusing such compromises, then they would face the wrath of the American people.

Instead, the White House believes that the media acts as part of the Republican Party's permission structure. When Republicans doom reasonable compromise bills, the media turns on Obama for not doing enough to lead. The media acts as continuous "third-party authentication" for the idea that both parties are to blame, and that voters should be disgusted with everyone — and, in particular, the president, because it's his job to make Washington work. The result is that the media enables Republican intransigence, because the media ensures they'll never face the true cost of their political decisions.

The point of Obama's whole "permission structure" riff was to persuade the media to stop blaming him for Republican intransigence and begin blaming Republicans for Republican intransigence. But talking about "permission structures" sounds academic and passive — it's definitely not what LBJ would have done — and so it just gave the media a new reason to blame the president for Republican intransigence.

Further reading:

— Politics isn't here to please you

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Brad Plumer · May 3, 2013