Obviously, the White House could see that polling numbers on the “birther” issue were starting to turn negative on President Obama. Obviously, Obama himself was persuaded that Donald Trump was drawing blood as Trump railed against Obama’s credibility. Obviously, the Obama re-election campaign machinery was worried that the controversy over the birth certificate was opening up larger questions about Obama’s trustworthiness--and thus jeopardizing the 44th president’s re-election chances.
Those might seem like harsh judgments on Obama--and, also, high praise for the politico-media punch of Trump.
But let’s ask: If the Obamans were not feeling severe pressure, why would the President choose personally to wrap himself in the birther story, by stepping into the White House press briefing room on Wednesday morning to deliver the message that he does, in fact, have a genuine birth certificate? And why would the White House step on one of the best stories it has had in months, the implicit endorsement of Obama by Gen. David Petraeus?
The news that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is retiring, to be replaced by current CIA director Leon Panetta, is no big deal; Panetta is a longtime Democratic warhorse, regarded more as a loyalist than as a military expert. But Petraeus is a big deal. The four-star general--the hero of the Iraq surge, the most visible military man over the last decade of the global war on terror--is retiring from the Army to become a civilian appointee in the Obama administration, replacing Panetta at the CIA.
In other words, in purely political terms, Petraeus is a huge “get” for Obama. Some thought that Petraeus would be running for president by now, as a Republican. Or at least that he would be keeping his options open, as he continued to lead the fight against Muslim extremism. By staying in the military under Obama, Petraeus was, of course, loyally serving the Commander-in-Chief, but now that dynamic has changed. There’s a huge difference between staying in uniform under C-in-C Obama and taking on a whole new job as an adviser to him at the CIA; one of the CIA director’s duties is personally to brief the president on a near-daily basis about national security issues.
So Petraeus has, in effect, endorsed Obama’s leadership, and he will do so for every day that he serves in the CIA post. Moreover, having accepted the CIA appointment, Petraeus will now have to go through Senate confirmation hearings, in which questions will arise about whether or not he has supported, and will support, various Obama policies. It’s inconceivable that Petraeus won’t be confirmed, but if Petraeus seeks to be part of the Obama team, he will have to answer Senatorial questions about people and policy. And not only will he have to praise, effusively, President Obama, but also Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, and other present and future Obama colleagues. In addition, he will have be supportive of Obama policies concerning Afghanistan, Libya, and other warzones and hotspots.
In other words, Petraeus-to-CIA is a great storyline for Obama. His 2012 re-electioneers can say, “Folks, America’s greatest living general has signed on with Team Obama: Why would you want to risk changing leaders in the next presidential election?
But instead, the White House goofed. It trampled all over that story--and got a much different story: Instead of “Petraeus Boosts Obama,” it was “Obama vs. Trump.” Indeed, since it was Obama reacting to Trump’s taunts, we can say that Trump won the round.
Whatever one wants to say about the merits of the birther story, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion of The Daily Beast’s fair-minded observer, Howard Kurtz: “Bragging aside, it does make Trump look like he is driving the agenda and forced the White House to react.” Indeed. In the game of politics, either you are moving the ball, or the other guy is moving the ball. And Trump was doing the moving.
So score one for The Donald. Now Trump is on to new inquiries, such as Obama’s school transcripts. In fairness to Trump, he has a great many bones to pick with the President, from Libya to oil prices to China, but these personal issues are the red meat that activists--and reporters--thrive on.
In 1996, Kenneth T. Walsh, a veteran White House reporter, wrote a book entitled "Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press." The point of the book was that the White House media operation had to “feed the beast” that is, keep reporters happy by feeding them news. That was 15 years ago; today, the few hundred reporters who get paid to cover the White House have been joined by many millions of cable-news watchers, e-mailers, bloggers, and tweeters, all salivating for more, more, more.
So expect more curiosity about every aspect of Obama’s life in the months to come. Having gotten their inch, Obama critics will now want their mile.
One might think that Obama would seek to squelch all these diggers and critics with a display of seriousness. You know, say, summon the National Security Council, or speak on “grand strategy” to the Council on Foreign Relations. The diggers would still dig, of course, and the critics would still criticize, but Obama would be demonstrating that he is a serious man, doing serious things on behalf of the national interest.
Yet instead of heavy, Obama went fluffy--he sought comfort in the television studio of Oprah Winfrey. In the White House on Wednesday, the president said, “I’ve got better stuff to do” than deal with the birth certificate issue--even as, of course, he was dealing with it. And immediately after that, he and the First Lady flew to Chicago where they chuckled over the “silliness” of the birther issue. And then it was off to New York City, for a fundraiser, where the President again joked about birtherism.
Is this a good strategy for Obama? To keep the story alive--even as he tries to laugh it off?
Probably not, for two reasons. First, as we have seen, every time Obama reacts to Trump, he is feeding Trump, and all the Trump wannabes. And second, the more engaged he seems to be about political gossip, the more disengaged he seems to be about real issues facing America.
“U.S. economy slows” --that was the headline in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. And if that economic slowdown continues, in a couple of years, Obama will have plenty of time to battle Trump, or to go on Oprah--because he will no longer be distracted by his duties at the White House.
James P. Pinkerton is a Fox News contributor and panelist on Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch." Watch him this weekend Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET.