Why Can’t President Obama Get Surrogates You Can Believe In?

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William B. Plowman / NBC

Mayor Cory Booker appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington D.C., on Sunday, May 20, 2012.

It’s one of the great unexplained frustrations of the Obama presidency: Perhaps the most telegenic political leader of his generation has not been able to recruit a bench of top-flight, telegenic spinmeisters–called “surrogates” in the business–to fight his battles on cable and network television.

His top two economic spokespeople during the great decline of 2009–Larry Summers and Tim Geithner–had minds that chafed at the remedial logic of televised debate and voices that mumbled through talking points. His most able economic debater, Austan Goolsbee, had some success but then gave up the White House to return to Chicago and the academy. His top political spokesmen–Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and David Plouffe–deliver a punch as hard as anyone, but for the same reason rarely elevated the President’s case beyond the ring. His Vice President, Joe Biden, hits his marks, but only when he is on message. The DNC chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, struggles to transcend her Congressional roots. And Bill Daley, the President’s erstwhile chief of staff who was hired in large part because of his surrogate chops, faded from the scene after few unremarkable Sunday show appearances.

With a year for preparation, the Obama Campaign had plenty of time to right this wrong before the 2012 campaign kicked into high gear. They knew the shows they would have to fill–Meet the Press, et al., Morning Joe, et al., the occasional CNN Wolf Blitzer situation. But with one notable exception–the promotion of Stephanie Cutter, the veteran political killer with a wry delivery and a titanium spine–the first few weeks of Obama’s 2012 campaign have been filled with surrogate fumbles.

First there was Biden, who went off the reservation on gay marriage by being more honest and transparent than the campaign wanted. Then came Steve Rattner, a longtime Democratic bag man and former Obama Administration car czar, who stepped on the Obama campaign’s long awaited assault on Mitt Romney’s business record, by telling Morning Joe the whole war plan was “unfair.” The latest blow came Sunday on Meet The Press when Cory Booker, the Twitterific and likable mayor of Newark, said the following:

Well, two points I want to make real quick. First of all, I think it’s a race for President Obama to remind the American public the kind of things he’s been doing and stop letting the other side steal his narrative. He’s a guy that’s cut taxes on small business, the lowest discretionary spending we’ve had in decades in the United States. Start telling the truth about the Obama record to let people know that not only is he doing the kind of things, cutting taxes on the majority of Americans, but he’s also doing things to stimulate the economy, the economy’s getting better. As far as that stuff, I have to just say from a very personal level, I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it’s just this–we’re getting to a ridiculous point in America, especially that I know. I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people are investing in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, it ain’t–they’ve done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses, And this, to me, I’m very uncomfortable with.

Now Booker was clearly briefed on what to say. He starts off with all the right talking points–cut taxes, lowest discretionary spending. And then–Kablam!–he’s off the reservation. What’s going on? Well, we can all speculate, but the answer is probably some combination of the following: Booker, who is looking at a run at New Jersey Governor, needs private equity money to fund his own campaigns. Northern New Jersey is a major hub of the private equity industry. And he has so far gotten through his political career without wallowing too much in the muck–Obama was once like this–so is genuinely uncomfortable with the viciousness of the Obama assault.

Once again, the Obama campaign was forced to do rear action damage control. After the taping, Booker released a hilarious non-retraction retraction, non-mea culpa mea culpa on YouTube. He called it “Mayor Booker Expands on His Support for President Obama.” Ha. In the middle of his long equivocation, Booker lumped Obama campaign’s negative assault in with other “nauseating” campaign attacks, all but twisting the knife. So it goes.

What explains Obama’s surrogate struggles? I would posit three interrelated causes. First, Obama came into office as his own best surrogate, perhaps the best representative of his own Administration since John Kennedy. As a result, the White House never worked to build the bench it needed. At the end of the first year, and then again at the end of the second year, the gripe inside the White House was that Obama was overexposed, that surrogates needed to take up the slack. But it never happened. The American people had been coded to tune into 60 Minutes and see the President every few weeks.

The second issue is that Obama himself, and to some extent his campaign team, never prized the pure bloodsport of cable television. At several key moments, they have tried to take the high road. (Remember when the White House dismissed Rick Santelli’s rant as a distraction? Remember how much time passed before they engaged Glenn Beck?) So they tend to put policy folks and political insiders on television, when what is called for is a sort of shameless salesman, who both has the gravitas of a serious person and none of the serious person worries about self-contradiction. (Think Ed Gillespie, who has already earned his spot in the surrogate hall of fame.)

The third reason, and perhaps the reason that should most concern Obama, is that as his reelection battle approaches, the President is losing some of his gravitational pull. In two recent surrogate blowups, Rattner and Booker have opted to choose their personal interests over the interests of the President leading their party. This would not have happened in 2009, when Obama ruled without challenge everything in the Democratic party. But as the nation approaches another difficult election year since Obama’s 2008 election–2009 gubernatorial losses and the 2010 midterms took a heavy toll–many would-be Obama surrogates have more than one master.

All that said, the landscape is not totally bleak for Obama. He does have some real stars in the making, most obviously Ohio’s former Governor Ted Strickland, who combines a down home frankness with a witheringly exact and folksy message delivery. And then there is Cutter, who is quickly becoming the ubiquitous face of the Obama campaign, from social media fact checks to near daily conference calls with reporters and regular cable news hits. By the end of this campaign, she is likely to be as recognizable as cable news hosts like Rachel Maddow and Ed Shultz. And who knows, there may be more on the bench who have yet to take their star turn. The thing about campaign season is that Sunday comes around again every seven days. There is always another chance to make a first impression.