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The permanent campaign president

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted August 3, 2009

Barack ObamaIf President Obama has any strength as a politician, it would be his undeniable skill as a campaigner. He matched Senator McCain's high-roading with a refusal to play the race card. He's an eloquent orator, and he was as busy as any other candidate during the campaign. Even after it was over, there were times when he showed a common touch unusual in today's politician-in-a-bubble. He did help paint the walls of a teenagers' homeless shelter shortly before his inauguration. Granted that it was for the camera, but Obama had enough skill to make it look unstaged.

He was the first winning candidate to hold press conferences under the "Office of the President-Elect." Regardless of how un-decorous it was, it served its purpose as a publicity magnet. Once President, his speeches from the White House were folksy when complex issues hit his purview. Obama may be no Great Communicator, but he's certainly a good one.

It's become clear, though, that he's definitely not a Teflon President. His approval ratings have dropped steadily, even though he came into office near the bottom of the current recession. His attempts to put blame to the Bush Administration have been largely unsuccessful, in part because he behaving like a smooth transition agent came back to haunt him. As time goes on, more and more people peg Obama as some kind of an empty suit. His campaign tricks, such as the apology to the rest of the world that could have easily been spun as strategic, lacked their former magic after he assumed the Presidency. He's still up to the same gestures: his latest campignesque publicity moment was hosting a beer bash for Henry Louis Gates plus the officer who nearly arrested him. There's a parallel between it and Obama's public painting. What's striking, though, is the difference in public reaction. He's now being seriously compared to Jimmy Carter, even by pollsters.

Those recent embarrassing, sloppy or foolish gestures he's made come from the same Obama who struck many as unpretentious, spontaneous and smart. Barack Obama has not changed; the public's evaluation of him has. The backlash against him tells us something about the proper functioning of a democracy.

Permanent Campaign Officials…

If you look through the classical critiques of democracy, as well as criticisms of the more egregious behavior of elected officials, you'll find a lot of them unconsciously zero in on "campaign governing." Normally, winning candidates get over the campaign and settle down to governing. Every now and then, though, they kick back to campaign mode and treat some institutions, group of corporations, or sometimes plain citizens as if they were campaign opponents. Nancy Pelosi went into campaign mode vis-à-vis the insurance companies recently, which was ironic considering that a lot of insurance company 'wickedness' results from trying to contain moral hazard. Given that moral hazard rampant was a major cause of the financial crisis, castigating the insurance companies for trying to contain the ones they face isn't exactly stunning (except in a certain way.) Granted that it isn't as embarrassing as a hypothetical politician berating a hypothetical big bank for stopping the writing of sub-prime mortgages in 2006, but it may come back to haunt her. The insurance companies may try to retaliate by launching a quickie campaign against the group of professionals that have been responsible for adding all that red tape. Campaign governing, after all, encourages counter-campaigning from the targets. As the Aussies might say, it's fair dinkum.

The trouble with campaign governing results from how campaigns work. Rhetorical enthusiasm is customary, and rhetorical excesses are often forgiven. Both sides are almost expected to say nasty things about the other side; retaliation in kind is also expected. A candidate lives and dies on the strength of his or her performance. All candidates are the stars of their respective shows; what goes on behind the scenes is relegated to minor importance. This practice serves to eliminate or minimize any back-room deals. Results count, and results are achieved through meet-and-greets, rhetoric, performances, photo ops and media relations. Broken promises tend to be easily forgiven unless they were campaign-shakers.

Governing is another matter entirely. What counts here is constituency service, but the kind that wins approval is results-oriented. Rhetoric and performance matter less; action is what counts. Being quick with a ready answer, and quickly moving on, is a survival skill for a campaigner. For an elected official about to vote on a bill, it's something else. We tend to like campaigners who prefer extemporaneous performances. But elected officials that 'extemporaneously' decide to vote, or exhort voting, for a bill without reading it…

Meet Their Natural Adjunct

One way of pegging lobbyists is casting them as external bureaucrats. Like civil servants, or staffers, they serve politicians largely by taking away the troubles of legislating. It's no secret that few legislators write their own bills. Thanks to the prejudices of our time, the ones written by bureaucrats tend to be the most trusted because said bureaucrats are supposed to be disinterested. Thanks to custom, staffers whose chief interest is in keeping their boss elected are seen as honorary bureaucrats. Both are trusted with writing the bills that become the laws of the land.

It's an interesting dyad. In a campaign, detail work usually is unimportant. When governing, though, detail work is often vital to the job. When permanent-campaign governing becomes de riguer, the laws are seen to by staffers who are as unelected as civil servants.

We naturally think that bills largely written by lobbyists are crooked, largely because lobbyists are largely flacks. On the other hand, there's nothing preventing lobbyists from cultivating a professionalized kind of disinterest that keeps the most egregious abuses out of the loop. Many have, which makes their input resonate more amongst those who draft the bills which see the legislature.

Actually, lobbyists and make for a good fit with permanent-campaign officials. They're easy to rail against, and tend to make for fair opponents because they themselves play the PR game. By necessity, lobbyists have thicker skins than most others. Both lobbyists and politicians share a common detachment from rhetoric that all PR masters have. Given these commonalities, it isn't surprising that the two groups get along together. Normal citizens lack that detachment, and sometime act in unpredictable ways when they're campaigned against. Lobbyists, on the other hand, understand the rules of the game and act accordingly.

Also, a lobbyist with some forethought knows that his/her influence can be leveraged through being a resource rather than a mere salesperson. That's why so many lobby groups have think-tank adjuncts. That's also why so many think tanks lobby.

If President Obama is the permanent-campaign President that I believe he is, his early crackdown on lobbyers may have proven to have been a largely futile gesture. Presidents who act as if details are unimportant, once they become President, wind up needing them. Despite their partiality, lobbyists have one advantage over bureaucrats: they have no need to butter up politicians because they're not bossed by them. Ironically, a lobbyist often appears independent-minded when compared to a civil servant with normal job-protection and advancement needs.

Liberals seem to savor irony, but I don't know if they'll like that one. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan blogs these days about low P/E stocks.


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