Tim Pawlenty could not wait for President Obama to get home from Europe.
Pawlenty, looking to distinguish himself from a crowded but uninspiring field of Republican candidates, took to Twitter last week to blast Obama for not coming up with his own Medicare plan and taking part in a “European pub crawl.”
It could have been an easy shot. After all, the G-8 isn’t what it used to be, but is still a little more important than a pub crawl.
But while Obama might be the first president to carry a BlackBerry, he’s not looking at his Twitter feed to respond to attacks from Pawlenty.
And it’s not just Obama.
Having returned from Europe, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked on Air Force One on Sunday, en route to Joplin, Mo., about Pawlenty’s tweet.
“I have no comment in response to that statement,” Carney said. “I can simply say that the president has put forward a serious deficit-reduction plan that does produce entitlement savings, including in Medicare, building on the entitlement savings he’s already included in the Affordable Care Act. He’s demonstrated his commitment and seriousness to reducing the kind of spending in that important part of — important contributor to our deficit and debt problems.”
Hardly a sexy answer, but get used to it.
As Republicans look for creative ways to raise their profiles and name recognition, there is a recognition within the White House that engaging Obama’s would-be opponents would only elevate them in a lackluster field.
“There’s no reason to engage them directly right now,” said one Democratic strategist. “They look small and petty.”
The president likes to make jokes about his opponents in settings like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but do not expect Carney to start channeling his predecessor Robert Gibbs any time soon.
While Gibbs could rarely resist the urge to take on all comers — he even blasted CNBC reporter Rick Santelli from the White House briefing room — Carney seems to be under strict orders not to respond.
Obama, who took to the links again on Monday, is playing against the course and not watching his opponents. The strategy, for now, is to keep looking presidential.
That means going to Joplin to tour damage from a devastating tornado, even as Sarah Palin rides motorcycles and turns the campaign trail into the “Cannonball Run” by inviting the press to chase her.
Republicans say the White House is hardly staying above the fray. Officials from the top GOP campaigns said that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and groups like Priorities USA, formed by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, are doing Obama’s dirty work for him.
Alex Conant, spokesman for Pawlenty’s campaign, told The Hill that the campaign will continue to take direct swipes at Obama, and said that the White House’s refusal to engage in a lighthearted Twitter provocation is an indication of weakness.
“In many ways, the White House’s inability to effectively respond to things as simple as a funny tweet says a lot about the president’s weakness headed into reelection,” Conant said. “The White House is trying to hide behind the DNC and other left-wing political groups, but the president can’t avoid the debate for long.”
Inside the White House, staffers are content to ignore the day-to-day slings and arrows of Obama’s would-be opponents, acknowledging that engaging them would only help them.
But they also take comfort in knowing that Obama as the president has the luxury of responding only when he wants to, selectively choosing moments when a well-placed zinger from 1600 Pennsylvania can have some impact on the race.
Burton said his group is only too happy to take up the slack.
“The right wing has hundreds of millions of dollars to attack the president while Republican candidates are engaged in a race to the bottom of negative campaign rhetoric,” Burton said. “We’re here to step into the fold and present the truth when their attacks come flying.”
It’s a routine practice for a sitting president to try to have his team remain above the fray in the early stages of a presidential campaign.
One GOP campaign adviser who also worked for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign acknowledged that the White House held its fire then, too, engaging Howard Dean a little bit toward the end of 2003 but mostly keeping its powder dry until John Kerry was the clear winner of the Democratic nomination.
State parties, under the direction of the DNC, are jabbing at the GOP.
After Chrysler reported it was repaying most of the money it was loaned by the government, state parties took swipes at GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, who had criticized Obama’s actions.
And Pawlenty? Well, Pawlenty acted out because he was backed into a corner on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) toxic Medicare plan, Democrats say.
“These potshots are the only semblance of offense they’ve mustered,” said one Democrat.
And until one Republican emerges as the clear favorite, they can all expect their “potshots” to fall on uninterested ears at the White House.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.