Obama’s Florida Problem

What’s a president to do when his party attacks a politician he has praised?

In early February, when President Obama was trying to sell his stimulus plan, he flew to Florida. He was joined by Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican. Obama praised him. “Governors understand our economic crisis as well as anyone,” Obama said. “They’re on the front lines dealing with it every day, and Gov. Crist shares my conviction that creating jobs and turning this economy around is a mission that transcends party. When the town is burning, we don’t check party labels. Everyone needs to grab a hose!”

Now, less than three months later, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has turned its hose on Crist. The DSCC’s first ad of the 2010 campaign, called “Mess,” attacks Crist for abandoning his state in its moment of economic peril to run for the Senate. “Crist enjoys being governor when he attends basketball games and Super Bowl activities and when he takes over 60 days off with no schedule,” the ad notes. “But now, the job’s getting tough, and Crist wants out—leaving Floridians with the mess.” Adds DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz: “Leadership does not mean driving your state into an economic ditch and then ditching your responsibilities.”


So which is it? Is Florida’s governor the upstanding public servant described by the president or the feckless politician described by the DSCC? Obama is a busy guy, and press releases from one of his party’s campaign committees don’t generally cross his desk, nor can he be expected to get too concerned about them. Nevertheless, he is the leader of the party. And he does talk a great deal about not letting politics get in the way of governing—and of a new kind of politics in general.

In fact, in his 100th-day press conference he lamented that “change in Washington comes slow. … There is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we’re in the middle of really big crises. I would like to think that everybody would say, you know what, let’s take a timeout on some of the political games, focus our attention for at least this year, and then we can start running for something next year. And that hasn’t happened as much as I would have liked.”

All this echoes an anecdote from the Bush years, long before Barack Obama was a presidential candidate. According to Bush aides at the time, in a meeting with President Bush about Iraq, the then-senator from Illinois pointed out that it was awfully difficult to be open-minded about Iraq when various Republican campaign committees were bashing Democrats for being mindlessly anti-war. He hoped the president might be able to get his party to lower the rhetoric in the interest of getting something productive done.

Which raises another question: Who plays the role of the unknown young senator asking uncomfortable questions in the Obama presidency?