Outfoxing Obama

So much for post-partisan politics. Team Obama's attacks on Fox News are petty and childish. Top Bush strategist Nicolle Wallace on why the White House war on cable is backfiring badly.

10.20.09 11:45 PM ET

I watched Week One of Obama’s war on Fox and concluded that it was a win-win. Fox News saw its already sky-high ratings soar, and the White House had something to talk about other than the growing gap between Obama’s personal approval numbers and support for his agenda.

But Week Two of Obama’s Fox News offensive doesn’t seem to be going so well for the White House.

It’s tricky for a president who promised an end to childish things to single out one network watched by millions of Americans from across the political spectrum for ridicule. To suggest that the reporters, producers, and anchors at Fox News are not part of a news-gathering enterprise is confusing. The reasoning they’ve provided goes something like this: Fox News features some opinion programming, therefore the entire network should not be classified as a news-gathering operation. It is, in the words of White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, an “arm of the Republican Party.”

It’s tricky for a president who promised an end to childish things to single out one network watched by millions of Americans from across the political spectrum for ridicule.

Assume, for a moment that this is true, and apply the White House standard to MSNBC, a news network that also features some opinion programming. Going by the White House definition of a news-gathering operation, it stands to reason that the heavily opinionated prime-time shows hosted by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow would put MSNBC into the same category as Fox News. No Republicans are making this argument, but Obama would have been better off if he’d singled out opinion shows on both sides of the ideological spectrum. It would have allowed him to attack Fox News from a principled and bipartisan position. By singling out Fox News, he looks thin-skinned, political, and petty.

It also diminishes the presidency. Conventional wisdom suggests that the White House war on Fox has elevated the network in the media pecking order. Fox is already bringing down administration czars and driving congressional scrutiny of community organizers; I’m not sure how much further elevated it can be.

The bigger problem for Obama is the degree to which an attack on a cable network demeans the president. A leader proves he’s “tough enough” by sticking up for his country, staring down America’s enemies, and keeping his own party in line. He does not pass the toughness test by getting into the mud and wrestling with Glenn Beck. If Obama’s aim is to show his spine, he can impress everyone—Democrats, Republicans and the all-important independents who flocked to him last November but are slipping away in a hurry these days—by saving his energy for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Big Fat Story: Obama’s Aggressive New Strategy Besides, isn’t the president too busy to watch Fox? Even Democrats have fretted publicly that Obama may have bitten off more than he can chew by trying to fix an economic crisis, wage a multi-front war, and fix health care all at once. Where does he find time to worry about Sean Hannity?

The public has generously granted the president more time to re-examine his strategy in Afghanistan. But they want to believe that he’s focused on the serious issues. The economy continues to outweigh everything else by large numbers as the country’s pre-eminent concern. At a time when there are too many unemployed Americans looking for work, seeking re-training or trying to save their homes from foreclosure, there’s a dangerous vanity in President Obama appearing too focused on his own press.

I have no doubt that there was a discussion in the West Wing about the pros and cons of taking on Fox. Those who argued for the strategy probably talked about how attacking the network would fire up the base; those who argued against it probably thought it would appear un-presidential. That these discussions take place in a White House is normal. But to make the determination that a political play should be run from the West Wing of the White House against an “arm of the Republican Party” seems short-sighted. Instead of ushering in a post-partisan era, the Obama White House seems intent on doubling down on all the alleged sins of the Bush years by putting politics front and center—and offering no apologies for doing so.

I shared a stage with Anita Dunn at a post-election debriefing last December. She is smart, seasoned, and savvy, and we agreed on about 90 percent of everything we discussed. We spoke about the challenges of balancing the needs of the press with our ability to drive a message. Obviously, she did a better job at striking this balance than we did. Anita and I shared horror stories about some of the same reporters (off the record, of course!), and when I mentioned the challenges of dealing with the media’s excitement over Obama’s candidacy, she said, “Imagine having a whole network against you.”

I was struck then, as I am now, that a team with so much going for it is sweating the small stuff.

Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.