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The White House’s Self-Destructive Cynics

The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

At a news conference last Friday, President Obama claimed that, “starting tomorrow,” the “folks cleaning the floors at the Capitol” had “just got a pay cut” because of the automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

The president very quickly earned Four Pinocchios for that statement, especially after senior officials at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the federal agency that employ janitors on the House side, and the office of the Sergeant at Arms (SAA), which employs janitors on the Senate side, issued statements saying the president’s comments were not true.

Still, the White House has kept up its spin offensive, claiming that a cut in “overtime” was a de facto pay cut and thus the president was right — or at least not wrong.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this new claim also received four pinnochios. Why is the White House making stuff up? Democrats are starting to complain to the media that it’s because the petty yes-men the president famously surrounds himself with are essentially political pranksters who are a bit removed from reality. As Politico reports:

The stakes in the sequester debate aren’t quite as high as they were during the debt ceiling battle of 2011, but Democratic veterans of the Obama-Republican wars of 2009 and 2010 are getting a creepy sense of déjà vu from a White House messaging shop they believe fumbled the rollouts of the stimulus and health care initiatives….

One top Democratic Congressional aide offered this bit of advice to Obama: “Don’t accentuate a fight you don’t intend to wage [and] can’t win. … They spent two weeks building up sequester as a horror show and then got fact-checked a dozen times and were forced to back off their own claims of it being a disaster once they were forced to acquiesce to the cuts happening.”

Though Democrats in 2008 valiantly attempted to establish Obama as a thoughtful intellectual, what quickly became clear was that the president was inexperienced and inflexible and obsessively focused on the daily political skirmishes in the press instead of long-term policy wisdom. It is the Twitter presidency for the Twitter age.

This comes through forcefully in Vali Nasr’s much-talked about piece for Foreign Policy in which he recounts his time as an advisor to the administration as having a front-row seat to disaster. It should be noted that Nasr was brought on by the late Richard Holbrooke who was frozen out by Obama, and thus Nasr’s perspective is sympathetic to Holbrooke (and to Hillary Clinton).

But Nasr is also sympathetic to Obama’s stated policy goals, and joined the administration hopeful. He soon became disillusioned by the discovery that long-term policy objectives were utterly meaningless to Obama and his staff, who spent much of their time settling scores. Nasr acknowledges that such behavior is a fact of life in Washington, and he is credulous of Holbrooke’s general perspective. But he knocks Obama for advertising himself as a different kind of candidate who would be a different kind of president:

Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.

The Politico story shows that while Nasr may have had his own loyalties in the Obama administration turf wars, his view of how policy is shaped in the Obama White House is widely shared. One of the reasons the president makes such a terrible negotiator is that he doesn’t seem to seriously think through the issues on which he is negotiating. It is more important to him that that he not give his opponents any semblance of a policy victory than it is to solve the problem. This is the way the president and his supporters accuse Republicans of approaching every negotiation, and no wonder—they assume their own bitterness and cynicism is widely shared. We should be thankful they’re wrong about that.



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