02/10/2010 02:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Blaming staff for structural problems

Back in January, I predicted a rash of process-based explanations of President Obama's declining political fortunes in 2010:

During the next eleven months, it will become increasingly obvious that Democrats face an unfavorable political environment and that President Obama's approval ratings are trending downward. Inside the Beltway, these outcomes will be interpreted as evidence that the Obama administration has made poor strategic choices or that the President isn't "connecting" with the American public. Hundreds of hours will be spent constructing elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament.

Within two weeks, the narratives about Obama not "connecting" arrived thanks to Scott Brown's victory in the special election for the open Senate seat in Massachusetts.

It's now been about a month since I wrote the original post. After tiring of the "not connecting" narrative, the press has now moved on to blaming Obama"s advisors for his political problems. Congressional Democrats have quickly gotten on board, implausibly blaming Rahm Emanuel for not targeting more conservative Senate Republicans on health care.

Obama's staff certainly has made mistakes, but I doubt they are the principal cause of the administration's problems. As I've pointed out before, good fundamentals make political strategists look like geniuses and bad fundamentals make the same strategists look like idiots. In other words, staff performance is largely a reflection of the political fundamentals (in particular, the economy), not the cause of a president's success or failure.

Unfortunately for Obama's staff, they're under siege from all sides. The political press needs a dramatic narrative in which the President's problems are the result of failed political tactics; Democrats need a scapegoat; and Republicans want a scalp (particularly Emanuel's). If the year doesn't go well for Obama, it's likely that someone will be thrown overboard.

PS I predict Mickey Kaus is ahead of the curve on phase three, which will be to blame Obama himself for poor strategic choices.

Update 2/12 9:14 AM: See also Peggy Noonan's column today, which points in a similar direction as Kaus (i.e. blaming Obama himself).

[Cross-posted to]