Peggy Noonan And The Iron Man Theory Of Presidential Politics

Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Peggy Noonan is lucky, in a way, for the existence of Karl Rove and Dick Morris. The duo absorbed most of the mockery and heat for their irrationally optimistic predictions that Mitt Romney would trounce President Obama last November, allowing pundits like Noonan, who were no less sanguine about the impending Romney ascendance, to ease into 2013 relatively unscathed. The day before the election, you'll recall, Noonan explained on her Wall Street Journal blog why Romney would win. "All the vibrations are right," she sensed, "Something old is roaring back."

Election Day came and went and now Noonan has to grapple with the fact that her political seismometer was off and explain why the president she thought so feeble was able to sew up reelection so easily. To that end, she's written a Journal column speculating on whether Obama is already a lame duck, and argues that part of what's keeping Obama back is that he was too good at getting reelected.

Noonan writes:

Which has me thinking of two things that have weakened the Obama presidency and haven't been noted. One was recent and merely unhelpful. The other goes back, and encouraged a mindset that became an excuse, perhaps a fatal one.

The recent one: In the days after the 2012 election the Democrats bragged about their technological genius and how it turned the election. They told the world about what they'd done--the data mining, the social networking, that allowed them to zero in on Mrs. Humperdink in Ward 5 and get her to the polls. It was quite impressive and changed national politics forever. But I suspect their bragging hurt their president. In 2008 Mr. Obama won by 9.5 million votes. Four years later, with all the whizbang and money, he won by less than five million. When people talk about 2012 they don't say the president won because the American people endorsed his wonderful leadership, they say he won because his team outcomputerized the laggard Republicans.

This has left him and his people looking more like cold technocrats who know how to campaign than leaders who know how to govern. And it has diminished claims of a popular mandate. The president's position would be stronger now if more people believed he had one.

Ah yes, the aura of competence that every politician so dreads.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power, wherein the dithering Congress can be whipped into shape by the president's mystical powers of persuasion and leadership. What Noonan is describing here is the Iron Man Theory of Presidential Politics, arguing that Obama, stripped of his technology, would have been as vulnerable and powerless as Tony Stark without his impressive suit of armor. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it does help to explain why Noonan was misled by the "vibrations" -- Obama flipped a switch and activated his army of robot voters.

That's not to say that Noonan gives Green Lanternism short shrift. Far from it! "Mr. Obama's problem isn't really the Republicans. It's that he's supposed to be popular. He's supposed to have some sway, some pull and force," she writes. Noonan is a practiced hand at simultaneously acknowledging that Republicans are immovable in their opposition to Obama, and arguing Obama is a poor leader for not being able to move the Republicans. During the fiscal cliff negotiations she faulted Obama for not making a deal with House Speaker John Boehner, leaving out the fact that Boehner did everything humanly possible to not make a deal with Obama. The idea seems to be that the GOP can't be faulted because they can't help but be obstructionist.

She expands on that argument in today's column, making the case that in 2008, Obama and his team of political neophytes dealt themselves a fatal blow by not recognizing that overheated partisan rhetoric and obstructionism were the norm in Washington, DC:

What damaged the Obama presidency more, looking back, was, ironically, the trash-talking some Republican leaders indulged in after the 2008 campaign. It entered their heads at the Obama White House and gave them a warped sense of the battlefield.

In a conference call with conservative activists in July, 2009, then-Sen. Jim DeMint said of the president's health-care bill, "If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." Not long after, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was quoted as saying that the GOP's primary goal was to make Mr. Obama a one-term president.

The press hyped this as if it were something new, a unique and epic level of partisan animus. Members of the administration also thought it was something new. It made them assume no deals with Republicans were possible, and it gave them a handy excuse they still use: "It's not us, they vowed from the beginning they wouldn't work with us!"

But none of it was new. The other side always vows to crush you. Anyone who'd been around for a while knew the Republicans were trying to sound tough, using hyperbole to buck up the troops. It's how they talk when they're on the ropes. But the president and his staffers hadn't been around for a while. They were young. They didn't understand what they were hearing was par for the course.

"The president and his staffers hadn't been around for a while." Really? Obama's newly formed administration featured Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Rahm Emanuel in key advisory positions, and no one would accuse them of political naivete. The reason they think the Republicans refuse to make deals is because the Republicans refuse to make deals.

Posted In
The Presidency & White House
Wall Street Journal
Peggy Noonan
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