Barack Obama's presidential campaign had few leaks and little infighting, earning it the reputation of "no drama." The same spirit has mostly carried through into Obama's governing phase -- we've heard very little about whatever fights have occurred inside the White House. But that's changed lately, most notably with two salvos in The Washington Post -- one nominally an opinion column from Dana Milbank and the other nominally a news piece from Jason Horowitz -- both arguing that Obama wouldn't have so many political problems if he had only listened to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's advice.
The pieces are doubly stunning. First, because they appear to have been planted by Emanuel or his close allies -- it's rare to see a Washington figure trying to portray himself as lacking vast power and influence. But second, and more important, because both dwell at length on the alleged roots of a problem that's not a problem at all -- the public's view of Obama's handling of national security.
Milbank tells us that "Emanuel bitterly opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's effort to close the Guantánamo Bay prison within a year, arguing that it wasn't politically feasible." He also says that Emanuel "fought fiercely against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to send Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a trial," a decision that resulted in "another political fiasco." In Horowitz's slightly different telling, the problem was that "Holder presented a counterargument rooted in principle" for Mohammed's trial, while Emanuel recognized that gaining Sen. Lindsey Graham "and any other Republican support for closing Guantánamo Bay hinged on keeping alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed out of civilian court."
From where I sit, the Horowitz version of this story mostly undermines Emanuel's reputation as a hard-headed political realist. After all, would giving in to Graham really have prevented him and other Republicans from launching opportunist attacks on Guantánamo's closure? Indeed, everything we've seen since Inauguration Day suggests that there's basically no possibility of reaching logrolling tradeoffs with Republicans. They're fundamentally not interested in compromising on anything unless they can do so from a larger position of political strength.
But the broader problem with Emanuel's viewpoint is that he actually encapsulates the Democratic Party's main political problem with regard to national security: a perilous lack of self-confidence It's true that the right landed some blows with its arguments against Guantánamo's closure and its hand-wringing over Mohammed's trial. However, these hits need to be situated within the larger context of an administration that's done an excellent job of winning the public's confidence on national security. The alleged underwear bomber episode in December gave the right a lot of opportunity to slam the administration, but in the end a strong majority approved of Obama's actions and 65 percent said they were confident Obama was keeping the country safe. And looking comprehensively at Pollster.com's averages, the administration's ratings on foreign policy are better than its ratings on health care, on the economy, and on its overall job approval. Under the circumstances, the theory that Obama's decision to side with arguments "rooted in principle" has created some kind of political debacle is bizarre.
Bizarre, but all too typical. Not only do Democrats have a pathetic lack of self-confidence on national security issues, they're also unable to recognize a strong hand when they have it. Instead of press leaks in which aides compete to brag about how they urged the president to stand tall and fight, we have finger-pointing about who's to blame for an alleged fiasco even in the absence of any objective problem. In February, Greg Sargent reported that Democrats were so frightened of the national-security issue that the congressional leadership didn't prepare any kind of message for members to take home. The White House hasn't engaged much with Congress about security-related political messaging, either.
Right now, Obama's leadership on national security polls well, but imagine how much better it could be if Democrats were actually prepared to press their advantage home. What if the administration had well-briefed allies on the Hill ready to talk up the administration's approach whenever cable news gets interested in this issue? What if the chief of staff were bragging to friends in the press about how well his team is doing in closing a national-security gap with the GOP? Obama's willingness to challenge conventional wisdom about both the substance and politics of national security was part of what made him such an attractive presidential candidate. And in many ways, his administration has followed through on that promise. In political terms, however, the Democratic Party -- from the White House chief of staff on down -- is stuck in an unfortunate defensive crouch.