Tuesday, November 25, 2008

axe man

In choosing chief strategist, Obama chooses politics as usual
David Axelrod, the Chicago political consultant behind Barack Obama's message of change, is coming to the White House to help "tell the American people our story," as he put it in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Peter S. Canellos
WASHINGTON - David Axelrod, the Chicago political consultant behind Barack Obama's message of change, is coming to the White House to help "tell the American people our story," as he put it in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
From his new perch as senior adviser to the president, he hopes to continue the tale of how Obama changed the way America practices politics. But it's now obvious that there's one part of George W. Bush's political legacy that Obama and Axelrod aren't eager to change: the very dubious notion of having the president's campaign strategist rubbing elbows with all the policy wonks in the West Wing.
Bush's decision to bring Karl Rove, his Texas-based strategist and the architect of his rally-the-conservative-base approach to politics, to the White House was controversial back in 2001. Even Bill Clinton, whose White House was viewed as overly political by many people, didn't have his chief strategist ensconced in an office down the hall.
And Rove, of course, proved to be a magnet for trouble. There was, for instance, the federal investigation into whether Rove helped expose the identity of a CIA agent in an attempt to discredit her husband. Rove was never charged, but he did return to the grand jury repeatedly to correct his testimony.
But that was a minor political kerfuffle compared with the suggestion that Rove pushed for an early vote to authorize war in Iraq to take advantage of the 2002 midterm elections, when many Democrats would be reluctant to vote against the president on a pressing matter of national security and then have to face the voters a few weeks later.
Then, when Bush was mulling whether to give the United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq more time to finish their job, Rove reportedly urged Bush to start the war as soon as possible to get it over before the 2004 reelection campaign. (If that was his thinking, he was off by at least six years.) It's important to note that these are merely allegations made in various books about the Bush administration; Rove is now working on his own memoirs, in which he will presumably correct the record. And it's also worth noting that Rove could just as easily have made those recommendations to Bush from an office in Austin as from the White House.
But there's an extra degree of influence that comes from working in the White House; that's why political strategists are willing to give up lucrative consulting work to set up shop in the West Wing.
Among the president's staff, influence is determined by how much face time each aide gets with the chief executive. An ordinary staff member on the National Security Council might have to wait weeks to get in to see the president. But the president's chief political strategist, who traveled with the candidate for years on end and spoke to him constantly, arrives at the White House with more channels of access than anybody outside the president's family.
Other aides, from Cabinet secretaries on down, can only imagine what the strategist is telling the president about them; many will seek the strategist's favor, believing him to be the president's eyes and ears, and will listen intently whenever the strategist makes a recommendation.
So Rove's advice on Iraq may have carried more weight with the people around Bush than with the president himself. And Rove's presence as a virtual gatekeeper to the Oval Office almost certainly contributed to a top-down culture in which few, if any, advisers felt free to deliver bad news or offer competing views to the president.
Axelrod, of course, is not Rove, and Obama is not Bush. A former newsman, Axelrod is reputed to be an idealist more concerned with preserving Obama's image than with achieving political victories or influencing policy. His fame has come mostly from helping black candidates attract the votes of white people. He views himself as a storyteller, and no lover of hard-ball political tactics.
Still, as Axelrod probably knows better than anyone, most Americans think that politics already influences policy to too great an extent. Removing politics from the nation's decision-making process was a key talking point of the Obama campaign. It's part of the "story" that Axelrod wants to tell.
But it's curious that Obama feels the need to have a political consultant on his staff to reassure Americans that decisions aren't being based on political concerns.
Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond. He can be reached at canellos@globe.com
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