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Thursday, October 11, 2012  

Leather Up

Joe Klein gets this impression from "close Obama associates":

They said he hates doing things that he considers transparently political. He hates the idea of inviting a bunch of pols over to the White House for a drink or a movie, because they'd see it as an obvious bribe. He'd have to fake small talk; they'd try to Holbrooke him. He hates press conferences because the gotcha questions are calibrated to generate heat rather than light. He hates the notion of launching precooked zingers in debates. He hates debates, period, with their false air of portent and stage-managed aggression. These are inconvenient prejudices if you want to be re-elected. Such ceremonies are the price of admission if you want to be a politician.

They're not just the price of admission; they're the way things get done. They are methods of persuasion, tools of governing. People don't mind it when you're transparently political; they like to be bribed a little. If questions are calibrated to generate heat rather than light, then bring some heat. You don't have to be great at all of these things, but you have to give it a shot. 

When I reviewed Caro's latest volume on LBJ, this was a contrast that struck me:

Yet where a comparison between the two really does disfavor Obama is in the use of different registers of persuasion. Obama’s smart, rueful defenders have pointed to structural factors in our system, or to the fundamental circumstances of political debate, as limiting Obama’s range of motion. And not without cause. But Caro’s whole body of work is a testament to the idea that the true genius of power can circumvent those limits to a degree, through fair means or foul. Johnson was comfortable with a little demagogic rhetoric. Telling his own aides how Kennedy should argue for civil rights, he pointed out that “while he could order Negroes into a foxhole in a foreign country to fight for the American flag, he couldn’t get them into southern restaurants while they were on their way to join their units,” shaking the flagpole in his office for emphasis. And Johnson was fully willing to flatter, bully, or buy support from recalcitrant Congressmen. Obama, to the dismay of many liberal activists and observers, seems to genuinely believe much of his own “post-partisan” rhetoric. They watched Robert Gibbs go before the press to offer pallid dismissals of “politics as usual” or “Washington games” even as those unlovely methods managed to stymie the president on multiple fronts. Johnson was deeply intuitive in methods of persuasion that Obama seems to disdain. Like the best politicians, he knew that arguments will only get you so far. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics as usual, but politics as usual is interested in you.

No one is exempt from the rules. There's doubtless a sort of audience for this anti-small-talk tendency, but it does not typically include John Q. Swingvoter. I'll be watching next week to see if the President is more dialed-in. If we wants to defend and promote the values he explains so eloquently, he'd better be.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:09 PM
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