President Barack Obama is headed for political turbulence.
That prediction isn’t based on any private polling data or inside information. It’s just common sense: National political campaigns are cyclical, and after an especially good cycle, the Democratic president is due for some downtime.
On re-election prospects, the Obamaites are confident when they look at the state of the race, especially the Republicans. They’re showing signs of cockiness.
Like many politicians, Obama courts trouble when he’s riding high. Following his victory in the Iowa caucuses four years ago he was a favorite to end Hillary Clinton’s campaign with a blowout victory in New Hampshire. In a debate there, he showed veiled disdain for his opponent, saying that she was “likeable enough.” He then lost that primary.
Today, the administration’s chest-thumping over the State of the Union address is illustrative. It was a good political pitch, putting Republicans on the defensive on the fairness issue. It also was devoid of governing substance, something political handlers and White House spin doctors have tried to deny.
The president didn’t mention the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission. He appointed that panel two years ago. Then, when it issued a bipartisan report on how to fix the government’s books in December 2010, the president went silent. Privately, the White House’s explanation was that they kept quiet because they wanted to smoke out the budget proposal of the House Republicans, which was being drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. That was unveiled almost a year ago, and the Democrats got lots of political mileage out of it.
The White House victory lap after a small set-to last month between the president and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer also is revealing. While greeting Obama on airport tarmac in Tucson, the governor initiated an exchange on immigration. That issue is likely to come down to the president’s advantage in the November election, and Brewer is an inconsequential figure. The president and his team were bragging about slam-dunking a peripheral bore.
Over the last couple of months, Obama hasn’t been held to the same standard as the Republicans. That’s not because of any bias or media love affair with the president; it’s because his foes have provided so much ammunition about each other. That’s also part of the cycle, not likely to last.
Another illustration of presidential hubris involved the Bush family. The White House put out a picture of a private meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 27 that included former President George H.W. Bush and his son, Jeb, the former governor of Florida.
The Bushes were in town for the annual black tie dinner the next night at the Alfalfa Club, a gathering of business and political elites. The two featured speakers, both intended to be brief and humorous, were Obama and Jeb Bush. The president spoke to good reviews. He left before Bush spoke.
Obama hates such dinners. Some of his aides, in particular his political adviser David Plouffe, urged him not to spend an evening mingling with the 1 percent. Yet he chose to go, and attendees said it was the first time they could recall a speaker leaving before the other side had its fun. In addition, Obama’s 87-year-old predecessor was present.
Imagine the criticism five years ago if President George W. Bush had walked out on a dinner before Hillary Clinton spoke, with Bill Clinton in the audience.
In 2004, Democrats expressed outrage that Karl Rove served simultaneously as both the top White House adviser and as the head of George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. That, they said, was a blatant conflict of interest. Yet today, Plouffe is performing those two functions for Obama; the only difference is that Plouffe is a little better on politics and Rove had a better grasp of policy.
The most dangerous sign of arrogance is Team Obama’s insularity. It’s an exclusive club, with no room for outsiders. Inside the White House, that dynamic is personified by Valerie Jarrett, the president and first lady’s longtime confidante, who conducts the loyalty litmus tests.
“She’s the wagon master,” says a top Democratic political operative. “If there’s trouble, Valerie circles the wagons tighter.”
The same generally applies to the political team. Conversations last week with five of the smartest and most experienced Democratic political strategists — none associated with the Obama campaign — yielded the same bottom line: They’re only consulted occasionally and the outreach is pro forma. If it’s a runaway election, that approach will work out fine for the White House; if it gets tight, Obama may need some other counsel.
In politics, with exceptions, it’s usually better to respect your political opponent. This time, the appearance is that the Obama campaign has little regard or respect for the Republican front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; that’s a mistake.
The Obama team has reason for confidence. The last several months have brought some glimmers of brightness on the economic front; the jobless rate was down to 8.3 percent last month, from 9 percent in September, and most of the indicators are fairly positive.
In addition, the Republicans are into self-immolation. The House majority caucus so botched the extension of the payroll-tax cut in December that for the first time in memory Democrats were on the winning side of a big tax fight. House Republicans may again show their political masochism when the issue is joined again later this month.
Meanwhile, the Republican primary race in January was dominated by a pettiness exceeded only by its vitriol. Romney is “methodically dishonest” and “lives in a world of Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts,” according to Newt Gingrich. Romney described the former speaker as a “highly erratic” political pinball machine who sold his soul to the federally subsidized mortgage giant, Freddie Mac.
Obama should take note that even with all that, he enjoys only a slight edge over Romney in polls.
© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.