Hardball politics stays in the Oval Office

Despite his past denunciations of the “perpetual campaign” – and “political hacks like Karl Rove” – President Barack Obama’s version of change doesn’t include banishing hardball politics from the environs of the Oval Office.

Like presidents before him, Obama has imported pieces of his campaign into the White House, ranging from his own Rove, David Axelrod, to two dozen campaign staffers who will serve as liaisons with agencies. A top Iowa aide, for instance, is moving to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Obama resisted calls to abolish the White House Office of Political Affairs from everyone from his rival Senator John McCain to Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, installing a well-regarded, but low-profile, labor operative, Patrick Gaspard, as his political director.

He’s maintaining a giant, novel permanent campaign, Organizing for America, at the Democratic National Committee. And Obama aides Wednesday hinted that they would exact a cost from Republicans who opposed the stimulus, promising to release local jobs numbers in the districts of GOP members of Congress who voted against the plan.

“You can no more take politics out of government than you can take mathematics out of physics – it is the language through which it’s expressed,” said Paul Begala, a former White House aide to President Clinton who’s close to the Obama team. “The question is how you apply it.”

Unlike reformers of both parties, Obama has always honored the practice of politics. Unlike most politicians, he’s always publicly embraced politics as such. He campaigned, in part, on his success in building a political campaign, so it is no surprise that he has kept explicit politics alive in the White House.

In fact, Obama has settled into a model that appears much like Bill Clinton’s, and Democrats reacted with raised eyebrows Thursday to Karl Rove’s announcement http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123318823268126605.html in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that he was shocked, shocked to find politics underway in Barack Obama’s West Wing.

Rove’s complaint was that Obama violated tradition by moving the Office of Political Affairs across the street into the White House. Rove was wrong on that point – Clinton’s political staffers also occupied the West Wing.

Rove said in an interview that despite his error on the past office space of the political team, he now sees Obama’s political operation ramping up from the Bush years when – despite allegations that the White House coordinated grants and cabinet visits with congressional campaigns – he said politics was rarely on his mind.

"Politics took up a small part of my schedule, and I suspect it will take up only a small part of the schedules of Mr. Obama’s senior advisors,” Rove said. "There’s a White House political director thinking about politics 20 hours a day so West Wing staff only think about it half a hour a day."

That is not, to put it mildly, how most Democrats viewed Rove’s work, and Obama’s allies say Axelrod will shrink the White House role occupied by Rove.

“Rove was everywhere,” said Bill Clinton’s first campaign manager, James Carville. “David seems to be signaling that he’s going to have a narrower role. Rove would have never brought a Rahm in,” he said, referring to the muscular White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

And Obama hasn’t given him Rove’s broad portfolio: Axelrod, unlike Rove, doesn’t have a large staff reporting to him, and Gaspard won’t work directly for Axelrod, but rather for a deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina.

Gaspard will also be among the aides coordinating with Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee, and other powerful outside groups, like the labor-backed, pro-stimulus umbrella organization Americans United for Change, which is already running ads targeting Republican senators.
Obama has not brought his own campaign apparatus to bear in the stimulus fight, and his aides have downplayed the suggestion that he would turn his supporters against specific members of Congress – something that could backfire on Capitol Hill. But Obama’s aides retain a message machine that will bypass old and new media to reach some 13 million supporters directly, and Obama’s style is to push lawmakers with his message as much as with traditional arm-twisting.

“I think you will see a White House political affairs shop that will do everything it can to protect and promote the Obama brand, and tries to leverage the Obama brand to impact external audiences in a big broad way, and will then have a trickle-down effect and impact elected officials,” said Chris Lehane, another former Clinton aide.

But the White House political office will also remain the bricks-and-mortar counterpart of the web-centric campaign organization, communicating with Obama’s outside supporters who require more than a mass email.

“I don’t expect Dorothy Height to have to go to her computer,” said Minyon Moore, Clinton’s last political director, referring to the nonagenarian civil rights figure. “Dorothy Height has a right to a phone call.”

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