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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Obama and the Permanent Campaign

Today, Barack Obama has returned to the campaign trail. He is in Elkhart, Indiana. Tomorrow he will be in Fort Meyers, Florida. Two swing states. Meanwhile, he has launched "Organizing for America," run through the Democratic National Committee, and he has mobilized it on this stimulus bill.

These activities remind me of a George Will column that ran shortly after the November election.

In a Presidential contest replete with novelties, none was more significant than this: A candidate's campaign--for his party's nomination, then for the presidency--was itself virtually the entire validation of his candidacy. Voters have endorsed Barack Obama's audacious--but not, they have said, presumptuous--proposition, which was: The skill, tenacity, strategic vision and tactical nimbleness of my campaign is proof that I am presidential timber.

Because imitation is the sincerest form of politics, the 2008 campaign will not be the last in which such a proposition is asserted. Obama's achievement represents the final repudiation of the Founders' intentions regarding the selection, and hence the role, of presidents. So Americans should understand the long evolution of the selection process.

It is strange but true: Presidential politics, although of paramount importance, is a game without settled rules. More than two centuries after ratification of the Constitution, there is no stable system for selecting presidential candidates. [snip]

The Founders' intent, [University of Virginia Professor James W.] Ceaser writes, was to prevent the selection of a president from being determined by the "popular arts" of campaigning, such as rhetoric. The Founders, Ceaser says, "were deeply fearful of leaders deploying popular oratory as the means of winning distinction." That deployment would invite demagoguery, which subverts moderation. "Brilliant appearances," wrote John Jay in The Federalist Papers 64, "... sometimes mislead as well as dazzle." By telling members of the political class how not to get considered for the presidency, the Founders hoped to (in Ceaser's words) "make virtue the ally of interest" and shape the behavior of that class.

Is today's event a sign that the presidential campaign is getting even longer? I'd say yes. Will is absolutely correct: presidential elections are games without settled rules, which means we should expect candidates (including presidents) to work to change them to their advantage. We might be seeing that today as President Obama hosts a campaign-style event on the stimulus bill.

In fact, I think President Obama is orienting the White House to a political environment that has been in place for some time. Consider that it was on December 1, 2002 that John Kerry announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. Barack Obama announced his exploratory committee on January 16, 2007. By my back of the envelope calculations, this means that for about 47% of the Bush presidency there was a Democratic nominee (or soon to be Democratic nominee) campaigning against him. Meanwhile, the final RealClearPolitics polling average found President Bush with just a 29% approval rating. I can't help but suspect that these two items are related, and today I'm thinking the Obama White House agrees. That would help explain why the President is hosting an event that has the look and feel of a campaign rally.

Is this smart politics? Possibly. I can certainly appreciate the impulse the White House must feel to be more aggressively campaign-like. The President is inevitably the target of this permanent campaign. Opposition candidates are the ones who need to raise money and their profiles, so they declare the candidacies early, hit the campaign trail, and go on the attack against the current occupant of the White House. Over time, that could damage the incumbent's reputation - as might have been the case with George W. Bush. Many conservatives were upset that President Bush did not "fight back" more often. So, there are reasons for the Obama White House to pivot to this kind of mode, in recognition that the campaign does not really end.

But there are risks. The executive power of the country is now invested within Barack Obama. He is no longer the same person. He never will be. Henceforth, he's Mr. President. The man in whom it is invested must careful in how he handles himself because - as I noted last week - much of this power is informal, and thus subject to dissipation. Whether active campaigning of the sort we're seeing today - assuming we see more of it, which I suspect we will - could diminish the President's profile, remains to be seen. It depends on how the public reacts to this kind of campaigning, and also how he conducts the campaign. It's one thing for senators and governors to do what Will outlined above; it's another for Presidents to do it.

So, this could be a brilliant move - where the White House gets in front of the opposition and preserves the President's reputation; or it could be a bad one - where the image of a campaigner-in-chief diminishes the President's aura. We'll see.

-Jay Cost