Trapped in the news cycle

The Washington PostDecember 18, 2013 

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about President Barack Obama’s presidency is that his administration has frequently failed to live up to the standards his campaign set in 2008 for looking beyond the present news cycle.

In the wake of a Washington Post article Sunday about the Obama administration “systematically” putting off many regulations until after the 2012 election, it’s worth noting that it is certainly possible for a White House to turn key interest groups against it by siding with those groups’ opponents in the bureaucratic rulemaking process.

Do that to enough groups, and a presidency can cause real electoral damage.

On the other hand, what seems to have been happening here was an attempt to prevent Republicans from developing partisan talking points from news reports. And that’s futile: A political party can always develop talking points, regardless of what’s in the news, and those talking points are unlikely to have any substantial electoral effect.

In 2008, the Obama campaign promoted itself as having realized that losing news cycles really didn’t matter. That was a valuable insight; politicians who allow themselves to be bullied into an attempt to win news cycles will rarely accomplish anything else. Too often, the Obama White House has forgotten that.

To be sure: The pressure to fight over every front page or cable-news recap is strong. Lose a few in a row, and pundits start declaring the presidency dead. Managing to remember, in the thick of everything, that those things don’t matter much isn’t easy, especially since “winning” such fights feels as if something is being accomplished.

Still, it’s the policy accomplishments that count. And it’s disappointing to see how often the Obama administration has made the wrong choice.

Jonathan Bernstein is a politicial scientist who contributes to The Washington Post’s Plum Line and PostPartisan blogs.

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