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David Brooks: How Obama Seduced Me

First Posted: 05/25/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:15 PM ET

David Brooks

I've heard it said that President Barack Obama's tactical game proves that he may be the best student of counter-insurgency strategy among the civilian class. His modus operandi is classic COIN: engage the opposition, peel off the persuadables, marginalize the dead enders, and make it look like the refuseniks missed out on the deal of the century. Then, sit back and watch the public sentiment shift in your direction.

From a political standpoint, it's paid dividends -- the GOP, in the public eye, is the party of "No," of Limbaugh, of Michael Steele's hip-hop jams, of incoherent Tea Parties. Naturally, outside the realm of the purely political, that will only get you so far. Putting the opposition in check doesn't mean that this will have any practical effect on the efficacy of policy.

And none of that means that it will have any alteration on the media terrain, either. Everyone's still playing their old roles. Critics of the President reflexively accuse the press of being "in the tank," as they will forever and ever. The press will fight off the criticism by wildly overcompensating and picking fights with the White House that are increasingly pointless and picayune. And the Obama White House will continue to treat the press as they always have, since the campaign began -- as a largely dispensable annoyance that's no longer the primary vector of "messaging."

Of course, there's at least one member of the press who has thus far refused to not be entirely seduced by the President -- besides Chris Matthews. I refer, of course, to the New York Times' David Brooks, who was on the Charlie Rose show last night, walking through the first 100 Days...and Nights, of romance...and at least one unfortunate Freudian slip, which you should be able to pick out of the transcript, below.

BROOKS: I think he sees himself...as a Burkeian, if I'm going to keep throwing that out there, as someone who sees change gradually coming from the ground up.


ROSE: Either that, or he knows exactly where your instincts are.

BROOKS: He is, like all supreme politicians, you come out of the guy thinking--you come away from the guy thinking, "Oooh, Mr. President, I love you."

ROSE: He knew exactly what would push your buttons.

[Crosstalk]

BROOKS: I actually once went in to a - David Axelrod walks into a meeting with me, carrying The Reflections On The Revolution In France by Edmund Burke. They're not without manipulation.

Such naughty, naughty manipulation!

Along the way, evidence of a charmed Brooks abounds. Obama is the second coming of Marcus Welby, apparently! Or John Kennedy. Or Michael Jordan! But most importantly, while "he may agree with people on the left in the long term" the fact that Obama is slow to embrace them indicates that the President has Brooksian "cultural conservative" cred. "The guy is forty-seven. He's barely been in Washington," enthuses Brooks, the 48 years old self-styled Beltway outsider. And later, a lengthy discussion of Obama's "inner coolness." He's got "inner cool," now? Not long ago, Brooks didn't think Obama was showing enough panic about the economy.

But look, we get it. Brooks has been charmed. Is there anything Brooks doesn't like about Obama? The budget, apparently. "It's a trillion dollars a year, forever."

Of course, as much as Brooks may not care for that policy in principle, he's nevertheless gone out of his way to muster the support he could not provide for it. In a March 5 column -- bearing a snarky title, "When Obamatons Respond," that belies the piece's overall willingness to make Obama's case at length -- Brooks essentially parrots back the response to his criticism from the White House, at length. It begins thusly:

On Tuesday, I wrote that the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous. The column generated a large positive response from moderate Obama supporters who are anxious about where the administration is headed. It was not so popular inside the White House. Within a day, I had conversations with four senior members of the administration and in the interest of fairness, I thought I'd share their arguments with you today.

First of all, on one level, I have to say: kudos. I applaud Brooks for using his own space to admit to a viewpoint other than his own. That's rare among columnists. People even. But what New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt discovered later about the column strikes me as deeply weird:

To see how pervasive the culture of anonymity is in Washington, consider that President Obama recently walked in on his way to dinner and joined senior members of his administration who were arguing with The Times's David Brooks about one of his columns. In Brooks's next column, about this meeting, the most senior of all officials simply became one of "four senior members of the administration." His cover was blown later.


I asked Brooks if he had asked the president to go on the record. He said he had not, because "I thought in those informal circumstances it would be wrong to quote him by name." Brooks said that, as a columnist, he looks for information to shape opinions for which he takes full responsibility. He sees that as different from the role of a reporter seeking facts from identifiable sources. I understand the difference, but I would have asked.

Wow. You write a column one week, and within days, you have the President of the United States taking the time to personally debate the matter with you? I'd definitely be noting the way my criticism had an impact. That's big news. But it never even occurs to Brooks to get Obama on the record? From the outset, Brooks subordinates the effect his own writing had on the President, for the sake of...what, exactly? The privilege of returning to similar "informal circumstances?"

That's not so much burying the lede as it is pressing the lede, like a rose, in the pages of Edmund Burke's The Reflections On The Revolution In France.

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