BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
When you follow politics, it is easy to become consumed by all of the charges and countercharges, accusations, innuendo, name-calling and character assassinations that dominate the headlines.
The challenge is to sort out what in the political theater has broader meaning or a lesson worth learning. President Obama’s insinuation that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is injecting foreign funds into American campaigns offers a little of both.
The President’s assault on the Chamber was not in isolation. There is a broader agenda here. Throughout his 2008 campaign and his Presidency, Mr. Obama has stayed on one message—that our society is made up of innocent victims on one side of the scale of justice and evil villains on the other. It is his quest to protect the victims and conquer the villains. When it comes to villains, he hasn’t been skimpy. Just so far, they’ve included oil executives, insurance companies, bankers and investors, lobbyists, doctors, large corporations, most Republicans, conservative talk radio celebrities, Fox News, John Boehner, George Bush and Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Karl Rove. Now he’s added the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Ed Gillespie (see John Feehery’s rationale for Gillespie). As David Harsanyi wrote in the Denver Post: “So who’s left to demonize?”,asks David Harsanyi of the Denver Post. “The Girl Scouts? Rotary Clubs maybe?”
President Obama must have a closet full of white hats. He slips them on often and so do his advisors. They seem to suffer from the visual impairment common among both the far left and the far right, an inability to see America in anything but stark contrasts, good and evil, black and white, only right and only wrong, no in-betweens, no clutter, no confusion.
For the President it is a way of defining and defending his agenda, turning it from a political and ideological vision into a noble, moral and righteous crusade. The game of victims and villains can reap considerable rewards if played successfully. It can also be a dangerous game, prone to creating class divisions, fomenting anger, suspicion and distrust, and making consensus government all but impossible. Thus far, President Obama has not played the game well and we are suffering for it. It’s too bad. Barack Obama proved in the presidential campaign to be one of the most inspirational politicians of our time, rivaling Clinton, Reagan and Roosevelt. He has squandered that great gift.
There is also a lesson here for political leaders of the present and the future. When I served in the Ford White House there was an office of research that worked long hours meticulously researching the factual basis of everything the President said. In those days, when you couldn’t count on accuracy anywhere else, with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite, you could always count on it from your President. You may not agree with him, but if Gerald Ford said there were 10,524 marbles in a jar in a department store window, you knew someone in the White House had counted every one (there was an exception, of course, for what the President, said ad lib. President Ford made a slight misstatement about Eastern Europe, speaking off the cuff, if you’ll recall).
President Obama plays fast and loose with the facts. His attack on the U.S. Chamber was unfounded and untrue. According to the media, which roundly criticized the attack, the information was apparently based on something reported on a liberal blog. Anyone who takes as gospel what he or she reads on blogs is just plain irresponsible, but for the President to do so demeans the office. It further erodes the trust people have in the office, the President and the White House.
I would guess that most people just assume the President, with all the resources he has at his command, wouldn’t say something like that unless it were really true. Well, it wasn’t. So now who do we trust? Walter Cronkite is dead.
Editors’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.