The Permanent Obama Campaign
Now headquartered at the White House.
Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By FRED BARNES
At Barack Obama’s White House, the presidency and the president’s reelection campaign have merged. Totally. In the past, presidents have exploited their office to boost their reelection prospects. But never like this.
A whistle stop in the East Room of the White House
The weekly radio address from the White House, the presidential policy address, and the opening statement at a presidential press conference have been transformed into campaign tools. Though there’s nothing sacro-sanct about these events, they’ve never before been used in such a blatantly partisan way.
President George W. Bush didn’t do this while seeking reelection in 2004. Nor did other presidents, as best I can recall—with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 (before my time). But for Obama, his reelection themes—attacking “millionaires and billionaires” and criticizing Republicans as cruel and uncaring—have become presidential talking points.
Presidents wear two hats, one presidential, the other partisan. When Obama called congressional Republicans and Democrats to the White House last week to discuss the debt limit, it was a presidential event. Afterwards, though participants weren’t supposed to reveal what had gone on, administration officials touted Obama’s supposedly commanding role in the talks in leaks to the media.
That was pretty much business as usual. In background briefings following a major event, White House aides routinely give reporters details of how brilliantly the president performed. This practice has been going on for decades.
When a president seeking reelection appears at a party fundraiser or a campaign rally, he plays a partisan role, both as a candidate and as the leader of his party. Obama, already an announced candidate for reelection with a growing campaign operation, has spoken at numerous fundraisers in recent months.
But the distinction between the presidential and the partisan in the Obama White House has not simply become fuzzy. It has vanished altogether. Take his April 16 Saturday radio address to the nation—a practice begun by President Reagan—in which he lambasted the “vision” of the Republican budget:
Three days earlier, Obama had delivered a speech on debt reduction that, in effect, superseded the official 2012 budget he had sent to Congress in February. The address was a classic presidential event with an invited audience.
Yet with Republican congressional leaders sitting in front of him, Obama launched into a brutally partisan bashing of their agenda. He included his “millionaires and billionaires” mantra, plus the suggestion the Republican budget is un-American. It “would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known, certainly in my lifetime,” he said.
With this speech, Obama crossed a line. A presidential address on a traditional subject, the annual budget, sounded like a stump speech in the heat of a campaign.
Then, at a White House press conference on June 29, Obama introduced a new issue, the tax break for corporate jet owners. This was the first Republicans had heard of it. Eliminating that particular tax loophole hadn’t been mentioned in the debt limit negotiations headed by Vice President Biden.
Not to be too finicky, but Obama cited it at the beginning of the session, before he had taken any questions from reporters. A president can’t dictate what he’s asked, but his statement is the equivalent of a briefer-than-usual presidential speech. In this case, Obama used it as a partisan weapon. Here’s part of what he said:
This is campaign palaver. Pigeonholing Republicans as defenders of the rich is Obama’s main reelection theme at the moment. And after raising it, he repeated it again and again in response to questions from the press.