President Barack Obama thinks of himself as a master political manipulator. And why shouldn't he? Since 2004, Obama has catapulted himself from unknown Senate candidate to occupant of the White House. And he has done so largely by mastering the art of diversion. When Republicans targeted Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright, Obama diverted Americans by making a vague and infantile speech about race. When Hillary Clinton raised Obama's inexperience in foreign policy, Obama diverted Americans by blabbing about "hope and change."
Now Obama is in trouble on health care. Americans simply don't like his plan to gradually nationalize health care -- the latest Rasmussen poll shows that just 42 percent of voters support Congress' proposal, while 53 percent oppose it. And Obama is going back to his tried and true strategy: diversion. And as usual, he has picked his three favorite targets: race, ex-President Bush and the American people.
First, race. The Obama-Crowley-Gates explosion was deliberately planned and executed by Obama. Taking advantage of a presidential press conference on health care to rip the Cambridge police department and invoke racial profiling was a calculated strategy to distract Americans from the health care debate.
Second, Bush. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Eric Holder was gearing up to investigate the CIA for detainee "abuses" administered under the Bush administration's watchful eye. The timing of this investigation is troubling, especially since Obama has previously vacillated between interest in prosecution of Bush officials and the more intellectually and politically defensible hands-off position. The Obama administration's sudden revivification of interest in the Bush CIA demonstrates an obvious desire to distract Americans' attention from the burgeoning health care debate.
Finally, there's the Obama administration’s attempt to demonize its health care opposition. This is a clear diversionary tactic designed to put political enemies on the defensive. By labeling private health care supporters a "mob" of "un-American" lackeys paid for by "K Street," Obama and his allies are obviously attempting to discredit anyone who has the temerity to challenge his socialized medicine plans. And he is doing so in the most disreputable fashion: conflating intelligent criticizers with Timothy McVeigh types.
The fact is that those "extremists" who protest at town hall meetings -- even those who are rude or obnoxious -- pale in comparison to our Founding Fathers, who used to tar and feather their political opponents and then ride them out of town on a rail. If a congressman can't handle a few yellers, he or she ought to find another profession. Ronald Reagan famously shut down a yeller at one of his rallies by simply responding, "Aw, shut up." Yet today's politicians expect us to believe that anyone who yells at a town hall event is on par with Adolf Hitler's brown shirts. Then those same politicians retreat to the safety of their political bunkers, while activating their union thugs to quash outspoken dissent.
Obama's diversionary strategy is ugly. This time around, however, it's also stupid. Obama has forgotten his Clausewitz. Diversions only work, Clausewitz wrote, under two conditions. First, the diversion must draw more troops from the enemy than you are expending in staging the diversion. Second, and subordinately, the diversion must target something precious to the enemy, in order to draw their attention. If neither condition is met, said Clausewitz, diversions become "injurious" to the planner.
Obama's diversions in this case have backfired.
The race issue hurt Obama by exposing his most valuable asset: his ability to trade on his skin color. When it became clear that Crowley and police departments around the country were not going to back down, Obama was forced to deploy his entire media apparatus to defend his credibility on race issues.
The Bush issue is a dead issue. Americans are sick of hearing about Bush, which is why they elected Obama in the first place. This diversion has drawn no enemy fire.
Finally, there is Obama's "un-American" diversion. This has drawn his opponents into a battle over their own credibility, to be sure. The problem for Obama is that this diversion was staged too close to the main battle: targeting health care protesters did not distract from the broader health care debate. Instead, it fired up health care protestors and made them even more ardent in their opposition to his health care plans.
Throughout his political career, Obama has been able to avoid serious and substantive policy debates by creating ancillary, moving targets. Now, however, his gift for distraction has left him. And, focused now on the real Obama and his very real policies, Americans don't like what they're seeing.