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The New Republic ran a remarkable piece by Noam Scheiber on Tuesday that ought to be required reading for every Independent and so-called moderate voter in America – a convincing exposé from the Left of how Obama’s supposed “pivot to the center” – and particularly his warmer embrace of “business” – is really nothing of the sort. The central thesis is summed up neatly in paragraph two: “Despite all the talk about Obama’s political reinvention as we head into the State of the Union, it’s become increasingly clear that Obama isn’t caving to business. He’s shrewdly co-opting it.”
Scheiber goes on to highlight three examples in support of his thesis: First, the appointment of Bill Daley as chief of staff as “cover” for the appointment of the far more liberal Gene Sperling as head of Obama’s National Economic Council. At least 90% of the publicity went to the Daley appointment. But Scheiber notes, “From conversations I’ve had with administration officials in recent weeks, it’s clearly Sperling and not Daley who’ll be the key policymaking force in this duo.”
Second, the much-hyped “review” of federal regulations, coupled with a promise to eliminate any that proved outdated or ineffective. As in the case of the Daley appointment, the business community applauded. But as Scheiber points out, “the real story was how little substantive ground Obama was giving…. [T]he review won’t touch regulations [the White House] supported during the health care and financial reform efforts. The only regulations in play are likely to be quite trivial.”
Finally, Obama’s appointment of GE CEO Jeff Immelt to replace Paul Volcker as head of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Once again the business community cheered. “We thank President Obama for his excellent choice,” enthused John Engler, President of the Business Roundtable. But the position, outside the Administration per se, and so part-time that Immelt isn’t even giving up his day job, was (moderately) influential before now only because of Volcker’s prestige and personal relationships with the President and some of his top aides. Immelt, by contrast, is the head of a company that has lost 50-60% of its value since he assumed the top job, has been widely criticized for his company’s business dealings with Iran, is viewed in at least part of the business community as a “crony capitalist” and rent-seeker extraordinaire, and has no long-established relationships with Obama or any of his top team. Can Immelt even approach the (moderate) level of influence exercised by Volcker? Scheiber “certainly wouldn’t count on it.”
Remarkably, Scheiber goes on to paint a compelling picture of the strategy at work in the White House. In effect, the White House viewed the business community as having problems of both substance and style with Obama. The substantive issues were largely around the vast increases in regulation that have characterized Obama’s first term and his ineffectiveness to date in driving substantial economic growth. The style issues were around the lack of business people among Obama’s top advisers, various public statements seen as critical of private enterprise and profit, and a general impression that he looked down on business, had few friends from the business world, and didn’t even seem to care to make an effort to schmooze with business leaders.
According to Scheiber, “The genius of the White House was to address this second concern—showering businessmen with love and attention—while mostly ignoring the first. And, because business leaders had merged the two criticisms in their own minds … they couldn’t immediately discern that Obama had conceded almost nothing of consequence.”
Substitute “independent and moderate voters” for “business people,” and you have a crystal-clear picture of the White House political strategy for the next two years: concede the barest minimum possible on substance, and look for every and any opportunity to score meaningless “style points” with independents and moderates. Unfortunately, it may well succeed – but it is a big fraud nonetheless.