“The New Toughness”

At TNR this morning, Noam Scheiber has an interesting account of how the Obama White House’s poltical operation has evolved as the 2012 elections approached. It has, in fact, begun to closely resemble Bil Clinton’s, and not just because there is some overlap in personnel.

As Scheiber explains it, this “new toughness” is partly attributable to the simple dynamics of the re-election cycle, but also partly to a growing realization that the president is not going to get any breaks from either the opposition or the MSM. So a considerble percentage of its resources is going into “War Room” counter-measures, and in general, the political team doesn’t worry much about perceptions of civility any more:

Perhaps the best way to measure the staying power of the new toughness is to observe how Team Obama responds these days to critics of the approach. During their first few years in office, senior aides would often fret when the paragons of respectable centrism derided Obama’s rhetoric as too harsh or his proposals as too liberal. This time around, as the likes of David Brooks were knuckle-rapping Obama over budgetary hyperbole in his AP speech, the White House doubled-down. Office of Management and Budget staffers mounted a furious behind-the-scenes response, ultimately fighting to a draw with a “half true” rating from the fact-checking site Politifact. Around the West Wing, much was made over this triumph. Hope and change it was not. But sometimes you have to be willing to settle for a small victory instead.

Yeah, at this stage the road to re-election for the president is likely to be a matter of small victories over a vast battleground of many days. Such a high percentage of the electorate is already locked into partisan and/or candidate preferences that anything more than small shifts in sentiment affecting small numbers of voters is probably an illusion. The atmosphere of history-making and near-heroism surrounding the 2008 Obama campaign may be all but gone, but so, too, is the fear and uncertainty that seemed to afflict the White House as much as it did Democrats generally going into the depths of the 2010 cycle.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.