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Santelli Smackdown Shows White House Foil Strategy

Cable news and Rush Limbaugh are an Obama Administration foil. Today, the White House continued to signal that the dumb things that get said by administration critics on right-wing radio and cable news networks will be used by the White House as fodder for “look how irrational our critics are.”

Robert Gibbs relished the opportunity to lay some wood to the cable barkers today, specifically that CNBC reporter Rick Santelli “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Yesterday, as discussed here and elsewhere, CNBC’s Santelli ranted that Obama’s home forclosures plan unveiled Wednesday in Phoenix would not help deserving homeowners and instead help those who bore responsibility for the foreclosure crisis.

Today, it was Gibbs’ turn, and he took a big whack back. First, he implied Santelli was out of touch; “I’m not entirely sure where Mr. Santelli lives, or in what house he lives, but the American people….”

Naming Santelli directly in his first answer five times, Gibbs found a way to return to his foil later for a direct shot:

“I also think it’s tremendously important that for people who rant on cable television to be responsible and understand what it is they’re talking about. I feel assured that Mr. Santelli doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Pointing out that home values drop significantly just by virtue of being in the same neighborhood as a foreclosed house, Gibbs suggested to Santelli that it would be helpful to actually read the plan, even inviting him to the White House for a cup of coffee while he read it:

“I would encourage him to read the President’s plan and understand that it will help millions of people, many of whom he knows. I’d be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I’d be happy to buy him a cup of coffee — decaf.”

The significance in all of this is not so much the particulars of any individual fight, but the willingness on the part of the White House to confront its critics directly, but picking and choosing the specific targets with forethought. The theme that has emerged, from the Rush Limbaugh dustup over “I want (Obama) to fail” on the stimulus plan, to Santelli’s CNBC rant, that the White House is rational and is empathetic to what is really going on in America — the phrase “Main Street” is uttered hundreds of times by Obama and his aides — and the critics are set up as some combination of ignorant, out of touch, non-suffering elitists who want craven political gain and not to do what’s right in a crisis.

When Obama first responded to Limbaugh, the reaction on cable news (I’m thinking of Chris Matthews in particular) was one of, “What’s Obama doing? Doesn’t he realize this just gives Limbaugh what he wants, elevates him to Obama’s equal? Isn’t that a bizarre miscalculation?” The way it’s always been done is, don’t give oxygen to your critics.

Well, the White House is clearly comfortable going after individuals as props, as foils, for its own arguments. It’s aligned with the brand of Obama as problem-solver-in-chief, calling out specific instances and individuals to say, hey look, see what I mean about a petty political culture? By keeping examples fresh, the White House is betting that Americans will side with it, and marginalize the “people who rant on cable television.”

In essence, tone implies substance. If you’re “ranting,” you have an agenda, you’re contributing to an unhelpful public policy climate. You might attract wide attention, as the Santelli incident did (Gibbs confessed he’d been watching it over the previous 24 hours on cable). By contrast, the highly popular Obama is seen as calm, thoughtful, nuanced and deliberate. Whereas Bill Clinton probably wouldn’t have been able to pull this personality contrast off (he was seen as more ebullient and combative in his personality), it works effectively for a popular Obama.

In other news from the White House today, Gibbs sent a clear signal about Roland Burris that requires a brief mention:

“I think it might be important for Senator Burris to take some time this weekend to either correct what has been said and certainly think of what lays in his future.”

Gibbs insisted that wasn’t a resignation call, but… it was a resignation call, with a timeline.

Let’s translate. “This weekend” = we better not see your ass at Tuesday’s joint session.

“[T]hink of what lays in his future,” because late-night bargoers hear it all the time:

Dear Roland, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.