Obama's Big Problem: Neophytes

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

Barack Obama talks with senior advisors outside a holding room at the Hy-Vee Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

Every presidential campaign is occasionally bedeviled by two things — media firestorms over controversial remarks and egghead policy advisors who stumble naively into a political mess. Dealing with two such flaps in virtually the same week is bad enough. But when two separate media firestorms are caused by two policy advisors, as happened to Barack Obama last week, a campaign has to do some serious damage control — and rethinking.

Obama's losses to Hillary Clinton in the March 4 Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island primaries were bookended by incidents involving Obama policy advisors, Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power, who became enmeshed in controversies involving some of the most significant issues of the campaign: NAFTA, the Iraq War, and Obama's professed rejection of negative campaign tactics.

Goolsbee and Power have much in common. Both are affiliated with leading academic institutions — Austan Goolsbee is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Samantha Power is a foreign policy expert at Harvard (as well as a columnist for TIME). Both joined Obama's team early on as the senior advisors within their policy areas, and, both enjoyed warm personal relationships with the candidate and the political professionals surrounding him.

Perhaps most important for Obama's political fortunes, neither Goolsbee nor Power have ever worked at the senior levels of a presidential run. One of the great strengths of his campaign is that it has brought in hundreds of thousands of people who have never been involved in politics before and empowered neophytes at the grassroots level.

But as demonstrated by Goolsbee and Power, it also meant inexperienced advisors were given major roles in a presidential campaign — and those two are far from the only ones.

For most of his presidential effort, Obama has received glowing, often hagiographic coverage — and his media halo had until recently extended to his family, friends, staff and advisors. Part of any insurgent campaign is to revel in its practice and claims that it is not playing by "the old rules" of politics. That can often include neglecting to establish and enforce the kind of strict rules for conduct and communications that more practiced, buttoned-down campaigns provide. In that respect, the recent troubles of Goolsbee and Power should be a wake-up call to Obama.

The Goolsbee controversy occurred first, and the facts remain somewhat in dispute. What is now acknowledged is that Goolsbee met with Canadian diplomats at their consulate in Chicago and discussed international trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A Canadian government memo written after the meeting suggested that

Goolsbee had downplayed Obama's campaign trail rhetoric decrying NAFTA's effect on the American economy, saying that as President Obama would not seek to overturn or radically reshape the agreement, a deal that is viewed as a good thing by American's neighbors to the north. After first denying the meeting took place, the Obama campaign claimed that the written account mischaracterized Goolsbee's conversation and that there was no cynical difference between the candidate's campaign position on NAFTA and his true intentions should he become President.

The Clinton campaign mercilessly flogged the issue in the days leading up to the voting last Tuesday, not only suggesting that Obama could not be trusted on NAFTA specifically, but calling into question Obama's candor generally. It is unclear whether this issue played a role in Clinton's March 4 success, particularly in Ohio, but it certainly exposed a side of Obama that the public has rarely seen: wavering, caviling and possibly equivocating.

Meanwhile, Power, on a book tour in Europe, made two statements that were as shocking as they were careless. In one interview with The Scotsman newspaper during which she belatedly tried to convince the reporter to keep her remarks off the record, she described Clinton as a "monster" who would do whatever it took to win. More substantively, in an appearance on the BBC, Power seemed to indicate that Obama's commitment to expeditiously withdraw American forces from Iraq was a campaign plan that would not necessarily guide his actions as President, particularly if conditions on the ground in Iraq changed and led to alternative recommendations from the Pentagon.

Amidst a swirl of controversy, Power quit over the "monster" slur, but the campaign might have actually been lucky she left, since her departure came just before her Iraq comments got wide play. The personal insult was gratuitous and crude, but the Iraq statement threatened to undermine one of the central promises of Obama's campaign. No one expected Power to spew invective, but when your top foreign policy adviser tells an overseas interviewer that you do not really mean something that you have put at the center of your campaign, well, Chicago, you have a problem.

The reality is that policy advisors from most campaigns talk to the media with some regularity, most often off the record or on background, and reporters usually give them a pass if they veer clumsily into politics or say something silly. They are, after all, policy wonks, not political pros.

But in the cases of Goolsbee and Power, the comments carried serious weight. Obama was trying to argue before the Ohio contest that he was more trustworthy than Clinton on fixing the flaws in NAFTA — and more trustworthy in general. Power's "monster" comment cast doubt on his campaign's contention that Clinton has been running the more personally negative campaign. Furthermore, steadfast opposition to the presence of American troops in Iraq is one of the chief points of contrast that has benefited Obama in his fight against Clinton. In recent days, news organizations for the first time have stepped up their scrutiny of Obama's campaign, and the Goolsbee and Power flaps have provided plenty of fodder for this new attention.

Policy advisors usually deal in subtlety and nuance, while candidates talk and think big picture and big ideas. Political staffers, including those working for Obama, often laugh privately and good-naturedly at the political awkwardness of people like Goolsbee; goofy comments are expected to be interpreted as the wonky discourse of a cerebral scholar. The Obama campaign will clearly have to revisit its past practice of letting policy advisors meet with whomever they wish or talk to the media without intensive preparation from the communications operation. Obama's political aides were clearly aware of the damage that had been done by these comments and suggested that they would take actions to try to make sure such problems didn't happen again.

Not every remark gets caught up the freak show atmosphere of presidential politics — even now. Barack Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, a Princeton-educated basketball coach at Brown University, was given almost a complete pass by the press and the Clinton campaign when he made personally disparaging remarks about Hillary and Bill Clinton in an interview published last week in the New Yorker.

But going forward, such forbearance will likely be the exception, not the rule. Obama famously decried Clinton's criticism that he was coasting on "just words." But if there is a lesson for Obama and his team from the Goolsbee and Power episodes, it is: watch what you say — always — because the world is now watching too.