Why the White House Won't Let Go of 'The Limbaugh Thing' Anytime Soon

Now that few weeks have passed since the last punch was thrown in the biggest political fight of the young Obama presidency it is time for the judges to go the scorecards. Who won that throw-down between Democrat Barack Obama's White House and Republican talk show host Rush Limbaugh?

As the budget battle was hot and heavy last week a top aide to the President told me last week he didn't want to get back into the "Limbaugh thing." But then he went straight back to the "Limbaugh thing."

As one White House official explained it to me Limbaugh became an issue not because he is the most prominent Obama critic but because the talk show host embodies "hyper-partisanship."

Limbaugh became a stand-in for White House view of Republicans as a party that is not constructive, not willing to seek common ground and out of touch with a bipartisan thirst for solutions to pressing economic problems. Obama's aides connect the dots and see a picture of a dark, unappealing political landscape on the right in which Republicans have become so in-grown that not one of them felt free to repudiate Limbaugh for saying he wants the new American president to fail.

Right now, an administration official said, "the American people are not ideological...they are pragmatic. They are interested in beating the recession. Politics will take care of itself."

From that perspective the political heads at the White House don't have any doubt that the young Democrat from Illinois won his fight with the champion of right-wing talk shows. And the president's aides see that victory extending beyond Limbaugh to Republicans on Capitol Hill who remain unified in loudly opposing the president's stimulus package and budget proposals.

White House officials say they don't have to push too far for the public to get the idea that Limbaugh is the personification of Republican opposition that allows the GOP to be marginalized as the party of "no" and even as the president's spokesman Robert Gibbs said recently the party of "no new ideas."

The White House was giddy last week at the sight of a GOP alternative budget that lacked numbers and was little more than an 18-page expression of opposition to any tax hikes for anyone but with few hard numbers about how they would put together a budget.

"We are pleased with where we are...and we are amazed at where the other guys are going," said the president's aide. Later he added: "Our numbers are moving up not down and the numbers for Republicans in Congress are bad because they are not acting in good faith, they are not offering constructive opposition."

In fact, the president's overall approval rating of 61 percent in the Gallup Poll is down from the 68 percent approval he got from Americans as he entered the Oval Office.

That is still an impressive level of support given the critical state of the economy and the high expectations for the new president.

By contrast, the Republicans in Congress, who have been critical of the President, got a 61 percent "Not Favorable" rating in a March CBS News Poll and 51 percent disapproval from the public in a March Pew poll. And it is not just a general distaste for all of Congress that is reflected in those numbers. Democrats in Congress, by comparison, racked up a 50 percent favorable rating in the CBS News Poll and 47 percent approval in the Pew poll.

The slippage in President Obama's approval ratings since the big fight with Limbaugh is minor compared to depths being experienced by Republican political leaders. And public opinion polls show Limbaugh's favorable ratings between 19 percent in a March CBS poll and 27 percent in a March Newsweek poll. His audience may have increased but Limbaugh's standing with the public remains far below ratings for President Obama.

But there is one group of political judges that scored the big fight for Limbaugh - Republicans.

The Gallup Poll reports that since his inauguration the president's approval rating with Republicans has dropped from 41 percent to 26 percent.

The President is still winning the approval of 91 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Independent voters. While some polls show Obama losing a bit of support from Independent voters there is no question that any decline in his approval numbers is primarily the result of a sizeable number of Republicans buying off him. And that is Limbaugh's audience.

By that measure, Republicans scored the fight a win for Limbaugh. A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voters in mid-March found that reason for a small decline for Obama in that state was the result of a loss of support from, in the words of one of the pollsters, "Republicans, whites and men." That is Limbaugh's audience.

A Democratic strategist told The Washington Post right after the fight that Obama was a winner but so was Limbaugh because the fight "enhanced his stature with his audience" which by some reports grew in size during the fracas. The same Democrat, Chris Lehane, said he saw the fight as "probably a loss for the Republican Party."

And that remains the bottom line for the Obama White House. They invite attention to the fight with Limbaugh because they feel they won and won convincingly and want voters to compare them to the image of a Limbaugh-led GOP at every opportunity.