Obama fans are in a tight spot. As the White House turns ever harsher and more divisive, supporters are scrambling to explain why President Obama sounds so very different from Campaigner Obama. There are two possible explanations, neither of which is flattering. The first is that Obama was insincere on the campaign trail. The second is that his advisors – David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel -- are in control. The latter view is bound to take hold and it will not boost the president’s flagging popularity ratings.
Many who voted for President Obama feel deceived. When he said in Florida last year “we cannot afford the same political games and tactics that are being used to pit us against one another,” people believed him. When he extolled “rejecting fear and division for unity of purpose,” people believed him. When he said on election night “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree,” people believed him.
Why has the president left those admirable promises behind? Why is his administration going after Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, insurance executives, AIG management, the drug industry, the Chrysler bondholders and any and all who oppose his policies?
Many believe that Obama is being manipulated by his political adviser David Axelrod and his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The aura of Chicago politics drifts over the capital like a smog. Ironically, the nasty assaults may be calculated to offset a growing view that the president is not tough enough to stand up to his detractors. He already looks weak as he “dithers” on Afghanistan, repeatedly blames George Bush for his problems and kow-tows to foreign leaders while apologizing for our nation’s past. Surely, though, it will not help Obama if the country begins to suspect the president is not his own man. Being seen as a follower in his own White House will surely magnify an unhealthy aura of inconsequence.
In other words, Obama risks inheriting yet another problem left behind by President George W. Bush. -- For years, those on the left portrayed Bush as the willing puppet of political advisor Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney. The image of Rove and Cheney directing traffic for an inadequate president was one of the most enduring of Bush’s presidency. Their power undermined Bush’s authority and worse, made him look simple.
Nothing could be more damaging for Obama, who is assumed by his fans to be an intellectual giant when compared to George W. As the public starts to question how much time the president is spending on fund-raisers (26 events since taking office compared to only 6 for G.W. during the same term in office) or on his golf (24 rounds so far-- tying G.W.’s entire presidency), they may also ponder who’s doing the real work when the president goes AWOL.
For a host of reasons, the narrative will build. A March piece in The New York Times described the Wednesday Night Meetings of the Obama varsity conducted by David Axelrod. The piece asserted that Axelrod “helps decide which fights to pick and which to avoid, making him a leading voice in setting the political tone in Washington.” The Times reported that Axelrod had “hoped to keep (the meetings) under wraps so he would not suddenly be overrun by requests from people hoping to dispense advice.” Perhaps his political antennae also anticipated that he would begin to emerge as Geppetto to Obama’s Pinocchio.
Similarly, The Times has described Emanuel as “more chief than staff” and the author of Obama’s “do-everything-at-once strategy”. With his Rottweiler reputation, he is thought especially responsible for the increasingly belligerent White House sound bites.
Those who see history repeating itself can draw parallels between Axelrod and Karl Rove. Like Rove, Axelrod worked on numerous political campaigns and dreamed of someday landing in the White House. He was involved in the campaigns of John Edwards, Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Rahm Emanuel and, like Rove, is well known on Capitol Hill. Both men are driven by ideology as well as the urge to win. Similarly, both Cheney and Emanuel served in Congress, occupied important positions in former White Houses and have sizeable rolodexes.
A 2001 Time magazine article described Rove as “the busiest man in the White House... It was Rove who shaped the agenda, message and strategy that got Bush – the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times – into the White House.” They might want to reprise that story; Obama’s credentials set new records.
Liz Peek is a financial columnist and frequent Fox Forum contributor.