Published for National Affairs, March 25, 2013
For decades, one common cliché of American campaign rhetoric has been the criticism that presidential aspirants are “measuring the drapes.” When news leaks that a candidate is contemplating his future cabinet, or readying a policy agenda for the first 100 days of his administration, such advance preparation is typically exploited by his opponent as evidence of unbecoming hubris. Our presidential contenders have thus had to tread very carefully, caught between two unpleasant choices: entering the Oval Office underprepared, or risking criticism for seeming to presume a victory not yet won.
This difficult balance was on my mind when, in July of 2012, I was invited to a meeting at the Washington headquarters of the Romney Readiness Project. Known inside the Romney campaign as R2P, the project (which I soon joined as director of domestic policy) was an all-out transition team, assigned to help Mitt Romney prepare for the early personnel and policy decisions he would face if he won in November. Although Romney had long since secured the needed delegates to clinch the Republican nomination, when I attended my first R2P meeting, the GOP convention was still six weeks away and the election was fully four months away. Wasn’t it much too soon to start transition planning?
As I quickly learned, however, the project was a function not of hubris but of a new federal law that will forever change the character of presidential transitions. In an effort to address precisely the impossible choice that presidential candidates face between seeming arrogant and being unprepared, Congress passed the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010. The law provides government support — in the form of office space, technology, vetting for security clearances, assistance from federal-agency staffs, and funding — to help presidential challengers begin transition efforts upon receiving their parties’ nominations. Previously, federal transition support had been available only after the election was over. The law thus moved the transition timetable up from November to summer, offering several more weeks of crucial preparation time.
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Published for Real Clear Politics, March 21, 2013
The Republican Party has just come out with a new strategy, and number 13 on its list of demographic outreach priorities is to “Expand our presence on more pop culture oriented outlets to ensure our message is reaching all voters.” This finding may be surprising, and atypical for a political party’s strategy, but it recognizes an important fact: The area where President Obama most out-competed Mitt Romney in 2012 was in the sphere of pop culture fluency.
Throughout 2012, President Obama maintained a laser-like focus not on the economy, but on his cultural image. For a sitting commander in chief, Obama continually demonstrated an unprecedented and often disturbing level of pop culture fluency, showing himself to be up to date on music, movies, and especially TV. Obama, at one time or another, mentioned Homeland, Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men as among his favorite shows. In addition to being on the cutting edge of the small screen, Obama also knew where to go to demonstrate how hip he was, appearing on more than two dozen “soft” entertainment-style interviews during the campaign. He “slow jammed” the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and let Fallon call him the “Preezy of the United Steezy.” He told the deejays on a New Mexico radio station that he likes green chili over red, enjoys working out to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and that his superpower of choice would be the ability to speak any language. He was also a popular guest on Oprah and The View, appearing five times on the latter. At one point, he chose to appear on The View over meeting key world leaders who were visiting the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly.
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Gene Sperling has reserved for himself a special place in Washington lore. In the days leading up to the sequester deadline, the city found itself immersed in a bizarre debate over whether Sperling, an economic adviser to President Obama and a Clinton administration veteran, tried to intimidate The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward by suggesting in an e-mail that Woodward would “regret” his writings about the president’s fiscal policy proposals.
Though the full e-mail message, once leaked, ended up reading far more chummy than threatening — it was virtually “e-kissed,” as one reporter put it — the spat, quickly dubbed “Woodwardgate,” had a compelling historical symmetry to it. The very notion of a senior White House adviser possibly attempting to intimidate an enterprising reporter smacked of exactly the kind of arrogance that Woodward himself uncovered decades ago in his exposes of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
And history shows that, although public respect for the news media currently resides in the basement (along with respect for Congress), press enmity has proved to be an unsustainable — though popular — tactic for the White House.
Two modern administrations in particular made press enmity a guiding force in their communications and political strategy: those of Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.
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