Changing the rules

Arriving on Capitol Hill a decade and a half ago, I was eager to immerse myself in the way Washington really worked. I dug into political manuals by old D.C. hands like Eric Redman, Charles Peters and Chris Matthews. I worked in congressional offices and campaign headquarters, and each election cycle seemed to cement the rules of the road.

In his rise to the nation’s highest elected office, President Obama didn’t get that same education. As a result, the rules may be changing.

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•Rule No. 1: All politics is local.

Tip O’Neill’s well-known political adage advises new Washington representatives that the key to political success is putting the interests of the voters back home before any larger national interest.

But President Obama is leading the nation in a different direction, challenging us to think of America’s enormous problems as a responsibility in which we all share. To address spiraling deficits, he’s begun a line-by-line audit of federal spending, to eliminate programs that don’t work and preserve those that do. That means no sacred cows — even if it’s a defense contractor that cynically spreads operations among 46 states to maximize the company’s political clout at the expense of a more efficient outlay of federal tax dollars. And it means taking to the world stage to begin rebuilding American relations with Muslim countries — even at the risk of reinvigorating an ugly two-year smear campaign that targeted candidate Obama’s unconventional middle name.

•Rule No. 2: Win the media cycle.

In 2004, George Bush’s campaign team knew its candidate’s reelection was jeopardized by a failing economy and an ill-advised war. So they redirected attention to the daily foibles of John Kerry — poking fun at his fondness for windsurfing, his awkward ordering of a Philly cheesesteak and his mispronunciation of Wisconsin’s legendary Lambeau Field.

President Obama doesn’t pounce on the piddling stuff. When Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) seemed to question Obama’s U.S. citizenship, the president held his tongue — staying focused instead on issues like the mortgage mess, the banking breakdown and how we fix problems from healthcare affordability to energy independence. Making steady progress on these priorities doesn’t always dominate cable TV chatter, but it will have a real impact on the future of our nation.

•Rule No. 3: Create a boogeyman.

For abusing this tried-and-true political tactic, both parties are responsible. In the mid-’90s, President Clinton’s team successfully blamed the temporary government shutdown on then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — using a cartoon of “Crybaby Newt” to help Americans understand why their local Social Security office had closed its doors. Time and again, Republicans point to “Big Labor Bosses” and greedy trial lawyers as the reason for high taxes and a clogged court system.

This president hasn’t manufactured a scapegoat for the country’s ills. He’s invited Republican congressional leaders to join efforts to revitalize the economy, and hasn’t let early GOP resistance deter him from seeking other areas on which the parties might agree. He’s given business leaders and insurance representatives the chance to help shape healthcare reform. Instead of scaring the American people, President Obama’s leading them.

No administration can be expected to rewrite the rules of politics overnight. But in his first 100 days, President Obama’s made real progress on changing the way Washington works.



Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.