President Obama, campaigner in chief
By Dana Milbank,
The preezy of the United Steezy is making me queasy.
I’m not troubled by President Obama’s slow jam with Jimmy Fallon, who dubbed the commander in chief “preezy” during Obama’s appearance on late-night TV. No, preezy is making me queasy because his nonstop campaigning is looking, well, sleazy — and his ad suggesting that Mitt Romney wouldn’t have killed Osama bin Laden is just the beginning of it.
In a political culture that long ago surrendered to the permanent campaign, Obama has managed to take things to a whole new level. According to statistics compiled for a book to be published this summer, the president has already set a record for total first-term fundraisers — 191 — and that’s only through March 6. Measured in terms of events that benefit his reelection bid, Obama’s total (inflated in part by relaxed fundraising rules) exceeds the combined total of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
It’s not just the gatherings officially categorized as campaign events. To a greater extent than his predecessors, Obama has used the trappings of his office to promote his reelection prospects even while handling taxpayer-funded business.
According to the same book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign,” by Naval Academy political scientist Brendan Doherty, Obama was the first commander in chief in at least 32 years to visit all of the presidential battleground states during his first year in office. He has kept that pace, devoting nearly half of his travel to 15 swing states that account for just over a third of the population.
The election is still six months away, but it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish Obama’s political events and speeches from the official ones.
This was the case on Monday, when he spoke to a group of trade-union leaders at the Washington Hilton. The event, the morning after he and Clinton made a joint fundraising appearance, was ostensibly an “official” speech to the AFL-CIO’s building trades section. But it was a campaign rally in everything but name.
The audience members shouted out Obama’s “Yes, we can” slogan and chanted, “Four more years.”
“I’ll take it,” offered the president, who unloaded on congressional Republicans for not spending money on infrastructure projects.
“Time after time, the Republicans have gotten together and they’ve said no,” he said.
“Boo!” the audience responded.
“I sent them a jobs bill that would have put hundreds of thousands of construction workers back to work,” he continued.
“Boo!” the audience repeated.
“I went to the speaker’s home town,” Obama said, referring to a trip to House Speaker John Boehner’s battleground state of Ohio, “stood under a bridge that was crumbling.”
“Let him drive on it!” somebody shouted.
“Maybe he doesn’t drive anymore,” Obama joked.
Predictably, Boehner has been complaining about the president’s campaigning. He said Obama’s team should “pony up” and reimburse taxpayers for trips to three colleges in swing states last week. Boehner called Obama’s traveling “pathetic.” The Republican National Committee formally asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the president’s travel.
The Republicans will get nowhere with that, just as Democrats failed when they made similar complaints about George W. Bush. Rules separating the official and the political are flimsy, and even when a president’s campaign reimburses the Treasury, it’s for a tiny fraction of the cost, which includes $179,750 per hour to operate Air Force One.
In fairness, it’s not entirely clear what choice Obama has. As with his blessing of a super PAC after condemning such groups, the alternative is unilateral disarmament. Also, his fundraising total has been inflated by a rule change that allows him to hold events that jointly benefit him and the Democratic Party (although his total number of fundraising appearances still eclipses that of each recent predecessor). Republicans, meanwhile, are determined to block the president’s agenda, so it’s an effective use of time to campaign for their defeat.
Still, Obama’s acquiescence to an intolerable status quo raises a question: Shouldn’t presidential leadership be about setting an example?
Instead, he is erasing the already blurred lines between campaigning and governing. During his “official” speech to the union group Monday, he hailed Tim Kaine as “the next United States senator from the great commonwealth of Virginia,” and his partisan speech spurred audience members to shouts of “Vote ’em out!” and “Gotta throw ’em out!”
“Not everything should be subject to thinking about the next election instead of thinking about the next generation,” Obama said of the Republicans. “Not everything should be subject to politics.”
He should follow his own advice.