Commentary Magazine


Operation Win Back Independents

In his interview with Newsweek, President Obama’s top political strategist continues to speak in ways that are both self-pitying and self-delusional. For example, he complains, “We came to office in a time of national emergency and economic crisis and two wars, one of which had no strategy. We didn’t have the luxury of orchestrating the messaging as we would under normal circumstances.” And again: “My regret is that we didn’t have the time and space to roll things out the way we would under normal circumstances.” And again: “There are things I would have liked to have messaged differently.”

All of the mistakes of the first two years of the Obama presidency, you see, were messaging problems. If only they had been able to convey to the witless American people all the glory that The One has made.

There were, however, two things Axelrod said that were noteworthy because of what they foreshadow for the forthcoming year.

When asked how the next campaign message might differ from the first one, Axelrod said, “I know ‘hope’ and ‘change’ have taken a little beating in this political environment. But hope and change are still at the core.” And when asked if the president can find common ground with the Tea Party over deficit reduction and tax reform, Axelrod said, “I think we can find some common ground on fiscal reform, on political reform, and on tax simplification. There are places where we ought to be able to work together and get things done. I think the public expects or at least hopes for that.”

Axelrod often speaks in a way that anticipates the direction the administration is heading. Well before a deal was struck with the GOP, Axelrod told the Huffington Post that the president would consider signing legislation extending the Bush-era tax cuts to high-income earners in America — a statement that caused consternation on the left but that proved accurate. And Axelrod’s lacerating attacks on critics was a signal of the White House’s thinking in the first half of Obama’s term (political opponents were referred to as “enemies”).

Mr. Axelrod and the president seem to finally realize — long after it was obvious — that the scorched-earth rhetoric and governing approach by the administration did tremendous damage to Obama’s most appealing quality: his promise to be a trans-political, post-partisan, turn-the-page, come-let-us-reason-together figure.

In the book Game Change, we’re told about focus groups conducted in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids during the election in which the people in groups reacted quite favorably to Obama, to his rhetoric of change and unity, and to his freshness and sense of promise. “We have something special here,” Axelrod said while observing from behind a two-way mirror. “I feel like I’ve been handed a porcelain baby.”

For most of the two years following Obama’s assumption of office, the president took a baseball bat to Mr. Axelrod’s porcelain baby. The effects of that will not be easily undone. But Axelrod clearly understands that Obama, if he’s going to win re-election, needs to win back independents — and he believes the way to do that is to repair the shredded banner of “hope and change.” We’ll see if it succeeds.

As for the Tea Party: a movement that was once portrayed by the president and his team as harboring racist sentiments is now one with which they will seek to find common ground. This is easier to do in theory than in reality, given the stark ideological differences that exist. What the White House clearly wants, however, is to be seen as reaching out, to be perceived as reasonable, pragmatic, centrist. You can bet the State of the Union address, and much that follows, will align with what Axelrod laid out in his Newsweek interview.

Operation Win Back Independents means 2011 will be, in important respects, different from 2010 and 2009. Whether the White House strategy works is an open question. It certainly has a better chance of success than the strategy it followed during the first two years of the Obama presidency. And if the president is serious about his latest makeover, it will be better for the country all the way around.

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