Yesterday’s DLC commentary on the president’s big Iraq speech suggested that yet again George W. Bush is demonstrating he’s the ultimate one-trick pony as a leader in time of war. He’s capable of communicating “resolve,” and not much of anything else.So I was more than a little interested in today’s Washington Post front-pager by Peter Baker and Dan Balz reporting that Bush is pursuing this we-make-no-mistakes tone of “confidence” on the advice of a political scientist who recently joined the National Security Council staff.The staffer in question, former Duke poli sci professor Peter Feaver (who also worked at the NSC early in the Clinton administration), is best known for a study he did with Duke colleague Christopher Gelpi on war leadership and U.S. public opinion. According to Baker and Balz, their big conclusion, based especially on Vietnam, is that the key factor in public support for a war is the perception that we’re winning, with presidential assurances on this front being particularly important.It’s not completely clear to me whether this characterization of Feaver and Gelpi’s views is accurate; some of it seems to be coming from unnamed “Bush aides.” And the piece also quotes Gelpi as saying that Bush’s latest speech was insufficiently specific in laying out a strategy for success in Iraq.But still, it’s more than passing strange that the White House would hire a political scientist to tell Bush exactly what he wants to hear in terms of his communication strategy on Iraq. It sounds sort of like scouring the earth for a dietician willing to tell a fat man that his habit of eating five pounds of ice cream a day is a good weight management technique.More importantly, it’s troublesome to learn that the White House thinks presidential spin on Iraq is more important to public support than the actual facts on the ground. All the “resolve” in the world won’t help Bush if the insurgency cannot be quelled, and if the Iraqis cannot achieve a political settlement that will make it possible for a stable government to function.The initial reaction to Bush’s speech doesn’t seem to indicate it had much of a positive effect on public opinion, and in part that’s because his expressions of “resolve” were insufficiently linked to the kind of specifics that could make them credible. Maybe it’s time for someone on the White House staff to break through the atmosphere of willful self-deception and suggest a communications strategy that’s based more on facts and less on spin. In other words, maybe Bush should be told to lay off the ice cream.
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By Ed Kilgore
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.