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The White House Bunker So Soon?

A Commentary by Tony Blankley

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Based on the recent appointments of the two most powerful staff positions in the White House, and on various statements, it would appear that the White House is descending deeper into the bunker in anticipation of the expected shift in congressional majorities next year.

The selection of Pete Rouse for chief of staff and Tom Donilon for national security adviser are both in-house promotions. Moving deputies up to principal rank is more typically seen in the seventh and eighth years of a White House administration -- when an administration often has lost its instinct for innovation and creative responses to changing events.

Moreover, in each case, a senior figure is being replaced with a staffer. Rahm Emanuel was both an elected congressman and in the senior leadership of the Democratic House when he became chief of staff. Gen. James Jones had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and four-star commandant of the Marines before becoming national security adviser last year.

Donilon and Rouse -- both with good careers as staffers -- have never held a principal position. They may well rise to the occasion -- even as Jones seemed to descend at his White House occasion-but they start in the hole as major political forces in their own rights. Worse, they are both known as political Mr. Fix-its, rather than serious policy players -- more suited for executing presidential orders than helping the president see and move toward different strategic visions of his presidency.

Evidence of this emerging bunker mentality was compounded when the president said on a radio show last week that if the GOP wins in November, it will be hand to hand combat next year.

We saw last year that the President did not flinch in the face of strong (60 percent-40 percent) public opposition to his health bill. Never before had major social legislation -- Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, voting rights, welfare reform -- been passed without strong public support.

Although I obviously disagree with his policy positions, I find the president's unflinching attitude personally admirable. Ronald Reagan stuck with his Central America war policy although it never was supported by more than 40 some percent of the public (and often only a quarter). But there will be serious consequences if a presidency, on a sustained basis, ignores public opinion.

President Obama doesn't need to triangulate and cave on his convictions across the board as Bill Clinton did after the 1994 election. But if the people speak as loudly as both parties' operatives currently expect, and the administration goes into hand-to-hand combat mode, that is likely to be good for neither the administration nor the country.

We will be entering 2011 with the economy floundering, the housing market in jeopardy of a profound further dislocation, the agreed imminent need to start controlling the out-of-control deficit, the increasing risk of a trade war with China, the Afghanistan War going badly (with the GOP giving the president most of his support on that war) and the terrorism threat on the rise -- among so many other dangers.

Not all of those matters divide on a partisan basis. The tone taken by both the GOP and the president will affect their ability to work together where they are not divided.

Moreover, whether the president takes public opinion into consideration or not, it is a dead certainty that surviving congressional Democrats will.

So the danger for both the president and the country is that we won't merely have partisan divide or gridlock -- but we will have, as well, a White House isolated from its own congressional party men and women (much as George W. Bush was in his last two years).

As Politico reported over the weekend: "... no matter how bad things get, Rouse and Obama have no plans to break up the small group of campaign veterans who surround the president -- nor are they likely to bring in the outsiders many Democrats think the White House sorely needs.

"'It's kind of a tight team over there, to state the obvious,' says Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, in a recent interview with POLITICO. 'Sometimes it's hard to find a point of contact -- or even know who to call over there.'"

By the way, we Republicans felt the same way about the Bush administration's isolation from its own party -- particularly post-2006.

But it ought to be grounds for serious concern when a party loyalist (and very shrewd politician) such as Rendell risks speaking up publicly only 19 months into the administration, warning of a sclerosis that usually doesn't overcome a White House until the sixth or seventh year.

The White House should reconsider the destructive path it is going down.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington.

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