The odd couple: Barack Obama and Karl Rove

Brad Todd Founding Partner, OnMessage Inc.
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Has David Axelrod been replaced?

The Obama administration’s decision to block the construction of the Keystone oil pipeline suggests that the Obama 2012 campaign is pursuing a strategy that’s very different from those previously employed by the master Chicago strategist. It’s now clear that the Obama campaign plans to work off a template designed by the man Democrats (and some Republicans) love to hate: Karl Rove.

In the summer of 2004, Illinois State Senator Barack Obama burst into the national consciousness with a Democratic National Convention address decrying the Rovian political strategy that “seeks to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” Reacting to Rove’s decision to steer Bush’s 2004 message toward polarization and maximization of its ideological base rather than appealing to the center, Obama railed on “the politics of cynicism.”

Eight years later, Obama’s own re-election vehicle is hurtling forward with the exact same strategy: driving up enthusiasm within the liberal base and ignoring all temptations to leave his lane.

Last week’s decision to freeze the cross-country pipeline that would have brought Canadian petroleum to Texas refineries is not the only indicator of Obama’s embrace of the Rove approach, but it is the best one because it was perhaps the most alluring potential diversion from that strategy.

Obama gave up a chance to get credit for 20,000 jobs — and the accompanying flank cover that four supportive unions would provide.

He missed a chance to prove his critique of Middle Eastern war-for-oil dependency is based on the needs of consumers and not just on winking genuflection to the peace-environment axis of the radical left.

He missed a chance to prove he can work constructively with the Republican Congress deliberately sent him by the same voters who will judge him again this November.

He missed a chance to prove the Solyndra scandal was an aberration and not a disease; that energy independence is his real objective and not just a talking point he uses as he chases anti-carbon dogma.

We can be certain Obama’s brain trust knows the political price-tag of rejecting the Keystone pipeline because last Friday they began their first campaign ads of the season in the most defensive posture possible. Obama’s first spot is a tactical retrenchment mildly bragging about diminished foreign oil reliance and excusing Solyndra. It’s hardly the opening argument one might expect from a presidency built on soaring rhetoric.

The Keystone decision is more than just the counterweight to that one campaign ad — from it we can project a great deal more about the Obama campaign yet to unfold.

Last month, the president’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, outlined five electoral paths that could yield the 270 electoral votes Obama needs. Two of those paths probably rely on a time machine or Newt Gingrich; one other hinges on an Obama sweep of the Rust Belt; but two more envision a new coalition that marries Western states full of ex-Californians to the coastal Democratic bastions. The politics of the pipeline tell us the latter pair of paths are the ones Messina and Axelrod are actually pursuing; they’re headed West.

Since he struggled with Hillary Clinton in the spring of 2008, Obama’s relationship has been the rockiest with one stalwart member of the Democratic political family — the white, blue-collar worker. Personified, this voter is the back-slapping brother-in-law who’s never quite warmed to the Ivy League stiff across the Thanksgiving table.

As president, Obama has done little tangibly to heal this rift, settling for class warfare as relational duct tape. Keystone’s politics makes that tougher, as the shale gas boom has made blue-collar Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania more focused on the real-world risk of academic environmentalism. But it’s not those voters Obama likely has in mind; he’s writing them off to focus on the organic grocery shopper in Denver’s suburbs.

The man who once lamented the intentional division of Americans along party lines is now choosing one part of his own party’s historic base over the other, and accepting economic failure in the bargain.

In 2004, Obama was perhaps what he — and America — wanted him to be. Today, a mirror-imaged Obama stands for re-election as the typical partisan he has become.

President Obama owes Karl Rove an apology.

Brad Todd, a founding partner of OnMessage Inc., created advertising in 2010 for Republicans including Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Rick Scott and he led the Republican National Committee’s 2008 Presidential independent expenditure.