President Obama's decision to employ bare-knuckled Chicago tactics in his street fight with Fox News has provoked a growing backlash from across the political spectrum that, left unchecked, could complicate his larger agenda, experts warn.
With key gubernatorial races looming in Virginia and New Jersey, Obama also risks alienating the all-important independent voters who could prove decisive in those races.
Moderate Democrats have begun speaking out against the administration's crusade against dissent, now that it has spread beyond conservative media to include the insurance industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others.
"There's no reason to gratuitously piss off all those companies," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., told Politico.com Friday. "The chamber isn't an opponent."
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The Chamber of Commerce was drawn into the brawl despite its support form Obama's stimulus package and the administration's Cash for Clunkers program. The schism began when it opposed the controversial cap-and-trade legislation that the House passed in June. And when it also opposed the administration's plan to create a financial protection agency for investors, Obama declared its advertising "completely false." Top aides then openly questioned whether the chamber really represents the business community.
Chamber Executive Vice President R. Bruce Josten said companies that refuse to cave in to White House pressure "seem to be the recipients of vilification and invectives very quickly from the White House attacking them."
Of course, previous administrations have had their run-ins with the White House press corp. But the Obama administration is unique in repeatedly singling out its opponents in confrontational ways that tend to turn off independents. In fact, pundits believe one reason for President Obama's strength with independents in November was his promise to bring a new tone of post-partisan politics to the nation's capital.
On Wednesday, President Obama personally escalated matters, apparently suggesting that Fox News coverage was akin to AM talk radio.
"If media is operating, basically, as a talk radio format, then that's one thing," Obama told NBC. "And if it's operating as a news outlet, then that's another."
That statement seemed to miss the larger point made by ABC's Jake Tapper and others, which is that the administration should focus on its governmental role and not cast itself as the judge over which outlets and reporters are properly practicing the profession of journalism.
The administration's war of words against Fox was apparently designed to discourage other networks from picking up Fox scoops such as the ACORN video scandal and the Van Jones "green-jobs czar" contretemps, while also stirring up the Democratic base in the weeks leading up to the bellwether gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey on Nov. 3.
Based on the media's response, that effort appears to be backfiring.
On Thursday, the administration suffered an embarrassing setback in its campaign to cast Fox News Channel as a media pariah. The Treasury Department arranged interviews for "pay czar" Kenneth Feinberg, but directed that Fox News would not be included.
According to FoxNews.com, the Washington bureau chiefs of the other networks conferred and informed Treasury officials that Fox could not be excluded because it is a member of the network pool.
Either Fox would be permitted to participate, they said, or none of the networks would provide coverage.
The administration quickly backed down from its plan to exclude Fox. But it was another skirmish in an unseemly struggle between Obama and Fox News that appears to be elevating the network's ratings, even as Obama's standing with independent voters appears to be slipping.
Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik told FoxNews.com the move to exclude Fox was "outrageous."
"What it's really about to me is the Executive Branch of the government trying to tell the press how it should behave," Zurawik said. "I mean, this democracy -- we know this -- only works with a free and unfettered press to provide information."
In the latest Marist Poll, 47 percent of independents now disapprove of Obama's performance in office, to 45 percent who approve. That indicates a serious erosion of support since August, when only 37 percent of independents disapproved of his performance.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., declared Wednesday on the House floor that the White House appears to be "increasingly intolerant of criticism."
"It's the Chicago way," University of Virginia Center for Politics chief Larry J. Sabato tells Newsmax. "In a White House full of Chicago pols, aggressiveness and sharp elbows are second nature."
Sabato says confrontational tactics may show short-term gains, but could prove expensive over time.
"This kind of behavior induces fear but also resentment," Sabato says. "There's eventually a cost.
"For example," he adds, "[Fox, the chamber, and the insurance industry] are big players. They can play rough too when they have the opportunity. In D.C. more than most places, what goes around comes around."
The emerging backlash against the administration's decision to "call out" its opponents spans a broad spectrum, ranging from Republicans to moderate Democrats, academics, media critics, and even liberal pundits who don't mind seeing Fox take its lumps, but who sense the president's strategy is misguided.
Barely a day passes now without new indications of the administration's chippy view of its critics. One Friday, for example, it lambasted a report by Politico.com chief political writer Mike Allen.
Allen reported on Thursday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lacked the votes in the House needed to pass a full-fledged public option, which President Obama favors.
"I don't know whether Mike Allen actually knows how to count votes or not," top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told MSNBC Friday morning. "A lot of people thought President Obama didn't have the votes to win, but he did. So we'll see."
Not only does ratcheting up the rhetoric risk turning off independents, but it could spell the end of the extended honeymoon conservatives believe Obama has enjoyed with the mainstream media. If so, that would be a high price to pay for venting frustration at Fox.
Administration supporters say its tactics simply reflect the need to respond rapidly to clarify distortions in a 24-7 news cycle that frequently emphasizes opinion over objective reporting.
Moderate Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Jason Altmire told Politico the administration should reconsider, however.
"It's a mistake," Altmire said. "I think it's beneath the White House to get into a tit-for-tat with news organizations."
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