All the President’s Talking Heads: Why Obama Needs his Surrogates More Than Ever

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While the President is away, his surrogates do not play. Instead, they spent their Sunday morning’s this week on the Sunday shows trying mightily to fill the late August void with little new to say.

“There are specific things that we can do right now that will accelerate our economy,” said David Axelrod, a top Obama re-election campaign adviser. “There are things that he could sign into law right now if Congress would move forward on it,” said Bill Burton, a former White House aide, now heading up a third party group supporting Obama. “The question that Republicans are going to have to ask themselves is, are they ready to work with this President and put aside party leadership so our country can be stronger,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary who is now working with the campaign.

Filler, no doubt. But it’s a start. For most of the first two years in office, Obama’s aides complained that they did not have enough surrogates who could fill up the airwaves to push Obama’s message. Now as the Obama team enters the most trying 14 months of a remarkably trying five-year blitz, they are getting their ducks in a row. The hope is that they can run a two-track message operation, one that allows Obama to keep slightly above the fray even as the national dialog around his re-election effort becomes relentlessly negative.

In the first two years, Obama was his own messenger, more often than not. These were the days of the regular prime time press conference, and the major address, when the President was the one pushing his ideas out to the American people. He was, at the time, his most credible spokesman. The first Commerce Secretary was a snore. The first chief of staff was high strung. Larry Summers stayed on point, but could also be grating. Robert Gibbs was busy wrangling the national press corps.

In the post-mortem’s on the first half-term, Obama’s aides decided they wanted to elevate their boss, so that he was not so deep in the muck that is lawmaking. He would provide a national, presidential vision. Someone else would have to do the dirty work. Like so much with this White House, the vows to shift course must be made several times before they stick. But new roles are forming.

With the economy still stuck in neutral, no Democrat sees a path to victory in 2012 that is not negative. Obama will have to run a comparison campaign. The message: You may not be happy, but I am better than than that one, and here is why. But as things take their dark turn, the White House and the Obama campaign will have to balance the need to deliver a clear, toxic message with the need to keep Obama at least a step above the fray. This is where the surrogates come in. Obama will tap. The surrogates will punch.

So on Saturday, Obama spoke in general terms about the need for “some in Congress to put country ahead of party.” And on Sunday, his surrogates went further.

“It is unthinkable to me that the Republican Party would say we can’t touch — we can’t touch tax cuts for the wealthy, we can’t touch special interest corporate tax loopholes because that will hinder — hinder the economy, but we’ll allow a $1,000 tax increase on the average American come January,” said Axelrod, speaking of the payroll tax cut extension that Obama is pushing. “How could that be? The only explanation for it is politics.”

“If the President proposed a transportation spending, investments in infrastructure to repair our roads and bridges, and Republicans say no, is there a reason other than politics?” Gibbs asked. “I think that’s what the American people are asking themselves.”

That was mild stuff compared to what was said about the Republican presidential candidates. Here is Gibbs: “I think when it comes to somebody like Governor Rick Perry they’re going to wonder why — why a place like Texas has one of the worst education systems. They’re going to wonder why a guy who doesn’t like the government, the largest employer in Texas is Fort Hood, an army base. $25 billion from Economic Recovery Act went to Texas and helped Rick Perry balance his budget.”

And here is Burton, who is even further freed to throw mud, since he works outside the campaign structure: “Here’s what you should know about Rick Perry, that when the health care debate got hot, he said that Texas should secede. He said that the Fed chair was guilty of treason. And he’s got a job record that’s a lot more spotty than people would suggest. He took a state that was a 4.2 percent unemployment, got it to a 8.2 percent. The job percent that we’ve seen there is 40 percent minimum wage jobs and the rest of them are fueled by stimulus dollars.”

Just the beginning of much more to come. And all while Obama got to play the back nine at the Vinyard golf club.