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White House losing control of its story

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
  • Ed Rollins says it's a basic rule of politics to control your message
  • He says White House has shifted its message, seeming to lose control of the story
  • Blaming Bush for problems only worked at the beginning of Obama's term, he says
  • Bob Woodward's book on "wars" inside the White House adds to Obama's woes, he says

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He is a principal with the Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations firm. He was White House political director for President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- The oldest rule in politics is to control your story.

What that means is that, if there are five weeks to go in an election, and your party -- meaning the Democrats -- is in big trouble, the narrative you want to tell voters is: "Why you should re-elect Democratic majorities."

I have been amazed over the past several weeks by how the White House has lost control of the story.

First everything was President Bush's fault. It was believable for a time early in President Obama's term, but soon people responded by saying, "So what? Fix it. It's your job!"

The next strategy was: "Look at all the wonderful things that Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Reid and I have done for you." The $850 billion stimulus, health care, the "cash for clunkers" car rebate program. Unfortunately for the White House, a majority of the voters disapproved of those programs and didn't think they worked.

Then we had the "don't give the keys back to the guys that drove the car into the ditch" strategy. That didn't quite work either.

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Then the sidebar stories started stepping on the narrative.

We've learned in the last two weeks that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may be getting off the sinking ship to go run for mayor of Chicago, Illinois. The mastermind who got most of the endangered members of Congress elected in 2006 and 2008 is saying "Adios guys. Chicago needs me."

Then last week some genius in the White House apparently got the idea, "Let's go brand all Republicans 'kooks,' like the Tea Party candidates." All that suggestion did was get the most enthused voters/volunteers/activists even more revved up and ready for combat.

Besides, the so-called kook candidates are leading or tied in many of these Senate and governor's races, and many will be elected.

Then we have former President Jimmy Carter on his umpteenth book tour telling everyone in all humility how, "I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents." What the Carter book tour really did was remind voters how much President Obama reminds them of Carter and his failed presidency.

Then we come to this week. We start the week with a CNBC sponsored and televised town hall meeting with real voters. Well, the real voters tell the president to his face that they really don't like him and are terribly disappointed in his job performance.

Those voters, many of whom voted for the president, are then featured all week on other television shows repeating why they told the president that his administration is failing them.

Then Tuesday we hear that the economics czar, Larry Summers, is resigning to go back to Harvard and teach. He must have read that the recession is over and his job is done. Ask the 18.8 percent who tell the Gallup Poll that they are unemployed or underemployed if the recession is over.

Another sidebar: While everybody is distracted and getting beaten up by former supporters who don't love the president anymore, Harry Reid tries with five weeks to go before Election Day to slip the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" into the defense appropriation bill for the Iraq and Afghan wars.

It of course fails, so blame the Republicans again.

And speaking of bad timing and the Afghan war, we read front page stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post about Bob Woodward's 16th nonfiction book "Obama's Wars" that is to be published Monday.

From the excerpts reprinted in the Times and Post stories, the "wars" he talks about are inside the White House -- tales that make Gen. Stanley McChrystal's staff's comments seem tame by comparison.

It will take at least a week or two of damage control just to get the White House focused back on the elections a few weeks hence.

In contrast, the group that has not lost its focus is the Tea Party gang, which seems to pick up strength every week. The Tea Party is not some misguided mob carrying pitchforks and throwing rocks at the windows of the establishment.

It is ordinary Americans who are frustrated that the people's government is spending $1.3 trillion a year more than it takes in. It is a movement that feels Congress and other government entities are mortgaging the future of our young people.

Not that everything is rosy for the Tea Party. Most analysts think last week's Tea Party upset in the Delaware Senate primary cost Republicans an almost sure victory in November. A CNN/TIME/Opinion Research Corp. poll shows Democrat Chris Coons well in front of Republican Christine O'Donnell. If she can't close the gap in the next two weeks and prove she is viable, the focus and resources will shift to places like West Virginia and Wisconsin that are now suddenly competitive races for the GOP.

The Tea Party is not built around a national leader -- such as Ross Perot, the leader of an independent movement in the 1990s -- but it is not leaderless.

It also has guidance from one of the most able political strategists I have ever known. The New York Times last Sunday profiled Sal Russo, the political guru of the Tea Party Express. Sal is a dear friend of 40 years, a former business partner, and someone I have worked closely with on numerous campaigns, including President Reagan's campaigns and the Perot '92 effort.

He was one of the masterminds of two-term California Gov. George Deukmejian's upset victory over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982. The point is that the Tea Party has direction from an operational point of view on how to run winning campaigns -- and it has done that throughout this political season.

The irony is the Obama team ran the most brilliant presidential campaign I have every seen. Its midterm effort pales in comparison. And if the results are as predicted, it will require more change in the White House than just the departure of Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.