Given everything on his plate as president of the United States, why does Barack Obama feel the need to take on a second job -- chairman of the Democratic National Committee? Officially speaking, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine chairs the DNC. But, as is customary when a party controls the White House, its true head is the president. But there should be a certain amount of delicacy in how the White House exerts its explicit partisan political power.
President Obama is choosing not to be delicate in tossing his elbows within the Democratic Party: America woke up Sunday morning to a New York Times headline saying that Obama and the White House political team had decided that unpopular New York Gov. David Paterson should step aside -- not run for a full term next year.
The decision to ask Mr. Paterson to step aside was proposed by political advisers to Mr. Obama, but approved by the president himself, one of the administration officials said.
“Is there concern about the situation in New York? Absolutely,” the second administration official said Saturday evening. “Has that concern been conveyed to the governor? Yes.”
Well, the Times story isn't "extraordinary" really: This is actually Obama's fourth intervention in a state race and he hasn't even been president a full year! In fact, his first intervention was also in New York. Obama chose to "clear the field" for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed by Paterson earlier this year to replace Hillary Clinton. Obama reportedly personally called Rep. Steve Israel of Long Island and asked him to not challenge Gillibrand in a primary. Similar pressure (though not necessarily an Obama phone call) was brought to bear against Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
The president has also picked sides in contested primaries in both Colorado and Pennsylvania. The latter one is somewhat understandable in that it involves Arlen Specter who switched parties. In these situations, the party usually stands behind the switcher.
But getting involved in all of these races isn't exactly smart for a sitting president who needs to keep his party united when he's trying to push through controversial legislation. This creates a no-win situation: Even if Obama is successful, he creates a certain amount of ill-will in the party -- and expends precious political capital within the party. On the other hand, if his preferred candidates lose, he ends up looking weaker within his own party.
There's another danger in being this explicitly political: It gives the GOP another line of attack against Obama and the White House. On CBS' Face The Nation, RNC Chairman Michael Steele adroitly (or shamelessly, depending on your perspective), introduced the race card in assessing Obama's attempt to force Paterson out:
MICHAEL STEELE: I found that to be stunning that the White House would send word to one of
only two black governors in the country not to run for re-election. And it just raised a curious point for me.
I think Paterson-- Governor Paterson's numbers are about the same as Governor Corzine's numbers, yet
the President was with Governor Corzine, and I don’t know if there’s been a request made of Governor
Corzine to step down in New Jersey. So I-- I just find it to be stunning and also rather bold.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, you don’t think he's asked him not to run because he's black?
MICHAEL STEELE: Oh, I don’t think that, but I just find-- I mean look, you-- you have so few-- if you're
looking-- if you’re saying it's the numbers, then why isn't there a call for those other Democrat governors
who have low numbers who are in trouble as well? So I just think that it's-- it’s just a curiosity for me that
the President would inject, or the White House would inject itself into that debate when it’s-- I don't think
it's appropriate nor necessary, because it's a primary. If he's going to be challenged he'll be challenged.
And he’ll survive it or not survive it.
Amazingly, Steele said this barely one minute after commending Obama for pushing back against charges that racism was behind criticism of the administration! Now, that's a deft piroutte. In fact, Paterson's numbers are actually far worse than Corzine. And Steele didn't mention that Obama didn't do the same to the other black governor -- Deval Patrick -- who also has poor approval numbers. One big difference between Corzine and Paterson (besides race) is that Corzine is up for this year, and there's hardly time to get somebody else to run in his place (though not unheard of in New Jersey). But the big difference between Corzine and Patrick, on the one hand, and Paterson on the other? The former two are elected governors who have the ability to recapture 51 percent of the support of the people.
Paterson, on the other hand, was never elected governor. He ascended to the office in the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal and resignation. There is no built-in "trust" factor for him to appeal to the public. Besides, while Corzine and Patrick might point to the overall economy as the main source of their problems, Paterson has compounded that same situation with multiple public errors -- including the bungled selection of Gillibrand. He assuredly didn't gain himself much cred with the White House when he helped launch the whole criticism-of-black-politicians-is-racist with a bizarre series of interviews last month.
Ultimately though, Paterson is doomed as much by a shadow looming over him that isn't extant in either New Jersey or Massachusetts -- a viable consensus candidate to run in Paterson's place. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is overwhelmingly popular in his own right, crushes Paterson in head-to-head matchups and handily defeats the strongest potential Republican opponent, Rudy Giuliani.
So, it's no surprise why Obama would want Paterson out -- but doing so publicly actually makes the situation more problematic. Even if he is a poor candidate, there's no reason to humiliate Paterson -- which the leaking of this story does. Paterson is already sounding quite defiant. Even though Obama will eventually win this fight, he's arguably undermined his above-the-fray moral authority in favor of playing raw political hardball.