CIA Director Leon Panetta and the Obama administration continued their incessant finger-pointing at the Bush administration yesterday -- accusing Dick Cheney of abuse of power by instructing the Agency not to brief Congress about a secret anti-terror program set up after 9/11 to interdict Al Qaeda operatives. Yet, we keep hearing from the president that he wants to focus on the future and leave the past behind. Think again.
As the Obama presidency has matured these last few months, we've witnessed the transition of an artful campaign operation into an often equally crafty operation at work in the administration. The Obama White House has deftly looked at the landscape of news, politics and government machinery and shifted the public's focus and attention away from the various controversial decisions that could impact the president's approval rating.
You win elections by making effective contrasts with your opponent. This is a White House in permanent campaign mode and the president's team continues to make the case against none other than George W. Bush.
The Panetta revelation about the Bush-era program is only the latest example of the politics of distraction as practiced by the Obama White House. It comes on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder's recent in-depth interview with Newsweek magazine. In the interview, Holder discusses his independence from the White House on decisions such as whether to investigate or prosecute so called Bush-era torture practices. Holder tells Newsweek that a decision on whether to move forward with investigations could come in a matter of weeks. The notion that Holder is going it alone makes for a high-minded, almost Capra-esque sound bite. But don't be fooled.
Anyone who believes that Rahm Emanuel and the president are not influencing Holder and Panetta's message, timing and decision-making is simply kidding themselves. Presidential administrations simply don't allow their cabinet officials to work in a vacuum. As a cabinet secretary, you don't freelance if you want to keep your job. And you certainly don't go telling Newsweek about it.
Whether it is a revelation about Cheney's instructions to the CIA or Holder's impending investigations, no decision of this magnitude is made without the president and his advisors analyzing its impact on the president's agenda. In pushing the line of argument that Holder and the Justice Department are somehow above Washington's political maneuverings, the White House is hoping to keep the president above the fray in the debate over a truly cunning and controversial decision.
The president and his staff are looking at their poll numbers. Obama's approval ratings are slipping. Nearly six months into his tenure more than one-third of voters strongly disapprove of his job performance. The gluttonous stimulus package is slowly being exposed as nothing more than a huge special interest giveaway. Nearly half of independents now believe that Obama is governing from the far left. Republicans are leading in the 2010 generic ballot. Unemployment is rising and the administration has done nothing except to create more government jobs.
It sounds like the perfect time to remind everyone of the evil of George W. Bush and his closed, deceitful, and downright criminal administration. The media will do their part and jump all over this line of attack, diverting air time and ink away from resources that might have gone to coverage of the economy by shifting it back to a debate about Bush policy. The Democrats in Congress will do their part to make this as sensational as possible. And here's the real kicker -- this White House strategy can work even if nobody is ever prosecuted and the investigation yields nothing. Team Obama doesn't care about dragging down some former CIA or Bush staffer and sending them off to jail. They just want the controversy over Bush-era policies to return to the national debate.
Of course, Obama will not be able to escape the economy nor evade questions about rising unemployment and the efficacy of spending us out of recession. Rest assured though, Attorney General Holder may very well be asked by Obama to do his part to distract us by keeping the Bush years front and center.
Make no mistake, there's nothing like driving a little suspense, throwing around some accusations, feeding the Washington rumor mill and trotting a couple of well-known names in front of the cameras. Before we know it, we'll have nationalized healthcare.
Thomas J. Basile is a New York-based Republican strategist, professor, lecturer and public relations executive. He is a former Bush administration official. To learn more about Tom visit www.TJBasile.com.