By Sasha Issenberg, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to govern according to "a new kind of politics, a politics that focused not just on how to win but why we should."
Yet as president-elect, Obama has placed his closest political adviser in a top West Wing role, has begun using polls to determine his strategy for promoting an economic-stimulus plan, and resisted calls to eliminate the White House office dedicated to political affairs.
On a visit last week to the Democratic National Committee, Obama vowed no retreat from the electioneering that helped him win the presidency.
“At a time when the challenges we face in this country are so vast, we cannot afford to abandon the movement we've built. We have to strengthen it,” Obama said. “We must build a movement for change that can endure beyond a single election.”
Even before he takes office next week, Obama has made clear that he will continue some of the most controversial practices of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who routinely used political tools while in the White House to promote both their policy agendas and electoral fortunes.
If anything, political veterans have been surprised by the frankness with which he has talked about it, especially given his campaign rhetoric. When it comes to bringing politics into the White House, the only difference between Obama and his recent predecessors may be the zeal with which Obama has publicly embraced the practice of using campaign tactics to govern.
“It’s perfectly in line with people’s expectations,” said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, who argued that presidents need to be responsive to public opinion while making decisions. “I don’t think people should be reluctant or shy or bashful about it. It’s just good sense.”
The “continuing political campaign” was conceived in 1976 by Pat Caddell, a strategist for Jimmy Carter who recommended that -- despite restrictions on the use of federal resources for election-related activity -- the incoming president build a political apparatus to direct him while governing.
Subsequent presidents have all followed Carter’s lead, even as opponents and the media have treated the practice as taboo: the revelation that the Clinton White House commissioned polls -- and used their data to influence matters as picayune as a decision to vacation in Wyoming -- became a minor scandal.
Obama advisers have said that they have employed pollsters to help shape their message strategy, such as deciding not to use the term "stimulus" to describe the package of new spending and tax cuts he is pushing Congress to pass and instead call it the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan." Tomorrow Obama will travel to an Ohio parts factory on a campaign-style trip to promote the plan.
“Not unlike news organizations, we poll public attitudes about where the economy is,” incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told Bloomberg. “We’re not polling to see what should be in an economic-recovery plan.”
Obama’s predecessors were far more reluctant to acknowledge such tactics. When he entered office in 2001, Bush repeatedly pronounced himself unswayed by political calculations, an implicit rebuke to Clinton’s style. "I really don't care what polls and focus groups say,” he said at a campaign stop in 2000. “What I care about is doing what I think is right."
In reality, according to Scott McClellan, his former press secretary, Bush did rely on polling commissioned by the Republican National Committee to help craft his message strategy, one of many areas where political strategists played a central role in White House operations.
“I don’t think you can ever end the permanent campaign, but it’s a question of minimizing its influence,” McClellan said. “How much influence will the political operation have within the White House?”
Like Bush, Obama has given his top political strategist, David Axelrod, the job of senior adviser, the same title Bush gave Karl Rove at the outset of his administration. (Transition officials did not respond to a request for comment.) Bush administration critics have long alleged that, under Rove’s guidance, the White House political office improperly used government resources to advance Republican interests. The White House and Rove have denied any such misuse.
In September, Obama’s opponent, John McCain, said that he would abolish the White House Office of Political Affairs and relocate its functions to the Republican National Committee. “I think we’ve got to have a White House that is without politics,” he said.
The next month, a draft report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform recommended “that Congress develop legislation to eliminate the White House Office of Political Affairs.” The committee, then led by representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, added: “If this is not politically feasible, Congress should adopt reforms to ensure that the office serves the interests of the taxpayer rather than the political party of the president.”
Obama has indicated he will maintain the office, appointing his campaign’s political director, Patrick Gaspard, a New York strategist with close ties to labor groups, to run it. In addition to working with the Democratic National Committee, Obama strategists have considered how to keep his nationwide campaign infrastructure -- including staff and field offices -- intact during non-election years.
The campaign seems to be something of a model for how the administration should manage its political operations: candidate Obama spent so much time publicly celebrating his successful politicking methods -- from fundraising to voter contact -- that they quickly lost any stigma.
"It's not new anymore, there's nothing revelatory about it," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who has written about the history of the permanent campaign. "There seems to be this irrevocable trend where it just gets more and more sophisticated with every administration, and there's no turning back."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.