In a sharp column entitled "The Pundit Delusion," The New York Times' Paul Krugman recently (and rightfully) lamented that the White House seems often to care more about looking like it supports elite pundit consensus than about championing empirically good (and widely popular) policy. This is undoubtedly true, as evidenced by the administration's deficit fetishization that Krugman cites. To be focused on deficit reduction instead of job creation right now is both ludicrously bad economic policy (as evidenced by history) and wildly unpopular (as evidenced by numerous recent polls - including one even from Fox News).
But you don't have to look at particular policies to know that the Obama administration is more obsessed with attracting approval from out-of-touch Washington pundits than with meritorious policy and/or attracting approval from America at large. You can look at this recent lead in a New York magazine profile of the avatar of the insulated and oft-discredited Beltway Punditocracy:
Every Monday and Thursday, as his deadline approaches, Brooks gets a call from someone in the White House - "I'm not going to say who," he says, which means Rahm - asking if tomorrow is going to be a good day...
Obama's team has courted Brooks assiduously. Emanuel once arranged for Obama to swing by a meeting he and Axelrod were having with Brooks...At (a) meeting with journalists, Brooks sat next to Obama, who would periodically turn to Brooks and point out that the policy being discussed was quite Burkean. "You could tell he was really conscious of his presence," says his Times colleague Gail Collins.- Advertisement -
Write this off as trivial anecdote at your peril. When coupled with the administration's championing of the ill-advised and unpopular policies regularly promoted by the Punditocracy in D.C. (prioritizing deficit reduction, escalating the war in Afghanistan, dropping a public option, to name a few), this portrait of the Obama-Brooks relationship is a snapshot of a larger attitude in the White House. Irrespective of the fact that - as New York magazine notes - Brooks has been both wildly inconsistent on issues and proven wrong on so many of his assertions, this administration is intensely focused on making sure public policy decisions appease Brooks and all the Brooks clones who populate the nation's capital.
Some will say this is a smart strategy, insisting that avoiding FDR's "I Welcome Their Hate" posture and instead shaping policy to appease the right's discredited pundits is a crucial step in the alleged game of 68-dimensional chess that Obama proponents say the president is so brilliantly playing.
I have trouble believing that, though. Just as the shortest distance between point A and B is a straight line, the more believable explanation for the Obama administration's Pundit Worship is the administration's personnel.
Sadly, this is a White House largely run by a cadre of the most insider of Washington insiders - people like Rahm Emanuel, Jim Messina and Larry Summers. And in the world that the Rahm Emanuels, Jim Messinas and Larry Summerses live in - a world of Capitol Hill receptions and think tank symposia and cable-TV green rooms and near-total insulation from the national recession - people like David Brooks are incredibly important on every level - politically, socially and personally, and for far longer than one presidential administration. The world the rest of us toil in, by contrast, is as important to those insiders as a foreign wilderness - a place that they occasionally are forced to visit (note: this is why DC reporters write their on-the-ground election stories in a tone suggesting they are on exotic safari) and publicly purport to care about, but in a day-to-day sense are not all that interested in.
Thus, we get an administration whose priorities are disproportionately shaped by the former world ruled by Brooksian dieties - not the latter one ruled by real-world economics and day-to-day struggles. It's hardly a surprise, when you really think about it.
As for the notion that this disposition is good for public policy decisions and politically smart - well, that sounds like yet more self-serving pablum from the same Punditocracy currently being prioritized. And, not surprisingly, recent economic news and political polling data suggest this trope has as much credibility as most of the Punditocracy's typical spin - which is to say, none.