Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Does E.J. Dionne Believe President Obama "Manipulated" Him?

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne ranks among President Obama's most ardent media fans. During the Democratic primaries and the national election campaign, almost all of Dionne's weekly columns praised Obama or criticized his political foes. Therefore, if Dionne criticizes Obama -- even if only subtly -- the moment warrants discussion. Dionne's latest column presents such an opportunity.

In his most recent article, Dionne discusses Obama's centrist politics. Dionne argues that in order to build a political coalition to support his policies, Obama employs multiple, perhaps conflicting, messages.

To support his argument, Dionne describes a gathering of media commentators at the White House prior to Obama's recent speech on national security. Dionne's portrayal of the event demonstrates that Obama intentionally retools his message in order to mollify all ideological camps (except for the far right). According to Dionne:
The disturbing aspect of Obama's effort to create [a broad political coalition] is that building it requires him to send rather different messages to its component parts. Playing to several audiences at once can lead to awkward moments.

Last Thursday afternoon, for example, the White House invited in journalists, mostly opinion writers, to sell them on the substance of the president's big speech on Guantanamo and the treatment of detainees.

Unbeknown to the writers until afterward, they had been divided into two groups, one more centrist with a sprinkling of moderate conservatives, the other more liberal. (I was in the liberal group.) The president made an unscheduled appearance at each briefing. As is his way, he charmed both groups.

The idea, as far as I can determine, was to sell the liberal group on those aspects of Obama's plan that are a break from George W. Bush's policies, and to sell the centrist group on the toughness of the president's approach and the fact that it squares with Bush's more moderate moves later in his second term.
Obama's coalition strategy sounds a lot like the "triangulation" moves by Bill Clinton that Democrats feverishly (foolishly?) condemned during the 2008 primaries and unlike the themes of transparency and change that formed such an integral part of his campaign narrative. Perhaps the orchestrated event proves that Obama, like other politicians, employs mixed messages and stages his appearances in order to broaden political support and to win votes and support.

The closing passage of Dionne's essay suggests that the President's secret maneuver caused him discomfort.. According to Dionne, Obama's efforts to maintain smooth relations with so many different ideological groups could backfire:
[E]stablishments have a habit of becoming too confident in their ability to manipulate people and events, and too certain of their own moral righteousness. Obama's political and substantive gifts are undeniable. What he needs to realize are the limits of his own mastery.
Dionne's essay comes across as a very subtle and diplomatic effort of an adoring fan to criticize Obama for manipulating people with shifting rhetoric. Dionne also seems to suggest that Obama needs to take more definitive and consistent stances on policy issues because the "two-step" strategy will have clear limitations. Dionne's analysis shows that scrutiny and support for a politician are not mutually inconsistent concepts. Perhaps other members of the media will soon discover this fact as well.

1 comment:

Stray Yellar Dawg? said...

Poor EJ. He's been jilted!

You can read my own response to his apologetics at my blog today.

Well, actually I was responding to Virginia at Katalusis... who also took Mr. Dionne to task. But the shoe fits here as well.

I resent these "progressives" who drank of the kool-ade, now coming to us as if they have "discovered" some deep secret about Mr. Obama. Namely... that he lies.

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