The White House on Wednesday fessed up to lowering the quality of public discourse and acknowledged that its sniping at radio show host Rush Limbaugh has been “counterproductive,” even as Democratic political committees continued to use the issue in a political line of attack approved by the Obama administration itself.
“It may be counterproductive. I’ll give you that,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, when asked about his repeated verbal jousting with Mr. Limbaugh and other media personalities who have criticized President Obama.
Mr. Obama himself has regularly employed the term “cable chatter” to dismiss criticisms of his economic agenda that he thinks are uninformed or inaccurate. And his administration has often complained about superficial, back-and-forth debates that substitute for political discourse or journalism.
But Mr. Gibbs said he has been “feeding” the very beast that he and others in the White House have lambasted.
“There are days in which, yes, your head throbs from listening to arguments that aren’t necessarily centered on delving into some important issue, but finding two people at completely opposite ends of the spectrum to yell loudest in a seven-minute segment before we go on to something else,” Mr. Gibbs said.
“I certainly criticize it, and I even occasionally watch it,” he said. “I certainly believe that feeding it, undoubtedly, I’ll plead guilty to counterproductivity.”
Mr. Gibbs made the remark Wednesday after several weeks in which he pointedly blasted one cable television reporter, ridiculed the audience of a cable network and questioned who was in control of Republicans. But it served to keep the issue in the news yet again, in what appears to be an intentional strategy.
The White House has pushed Mr. Limbaugh’s comments about Mr. Obama’s policies into the public debate beginning with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who on CBS’ “Face the Nation” show Sunday brought up the talk show host without being asked.
The morning after Mr. Limbaugh spoke to a conservative conference in Washington, Mr. Emanuel called the talk show host “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.”
Mr. Emanuel highlighted Mr. Limbaugh’s comments that he wants the Obama administration’s economic policies to fail.
Politico reported later in the week that Mr. Emanuel consorted with top Democratic operatives, including regular CNN contributors James Carville and Paul Begala, to try to make the flamboyant radio personality the face of the Republican Party.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said he disputed the Politico report but would not specify his point of contention.
Mr. Limbaugh has said he wants the president’s economic policies to fail because he thinks they will harm the country, and that he wants the country to succeed.
But on Monday, Mr. Gibbs said Mr. Limbaugh was “wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country.”
These comments coincided with a political TV ad released Tuesday by Americans United for Change, a liberal political group, that painted Mr. Limbaugh as the Republican Party leader and asked viewers to “just say no to the politics of Rush Limbaugh.”
On Wednesday, David Plouffe, who ran Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, wrote an 817-word op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Minority Leader Limbaugh.”
He also called Mr. Limbaugh the Republican Party’s leader but said his rhetoric was “like fingernails on a chalkboard” to most Americans, citing a raft of poll numbers that showed high approval ratings for Mr. Obama, and arguing that the Republican Party was being captured by its far right constituency to the detriment of their ability to attract support from moderates.
“If the GOP sticks with its strategy of failure as the only option, further eroding its brand with the people who decide elections, we may find out what it means for a political party to hit rock bottom,” Mr. Plouffe wrote.
Mr. Obama’s approval rating has indeed remained between 60 percent and 70 percent even as polls have showed public skepticism about portions of his economic agenda and severe anxiety about the economy.
Mr. Gibbs on Tuesday mocked Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who apologized to Mr. Limbaugh after calling the talk show host “incendiary” and his show “ugly” over the weekend.
“I was a little surprised at the speed in which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party,” Mr. Gibbs said during his televised briefing with reporters.
On Wednesday, the House Democrats’ fundraising arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sent out a letter mocking Mr. Steele and other Republicans who have crossed Mr. Limbaugh, only to apologize. The DCCC sent out an “I’m sorry Rush” form letter apology, calling it “the fastest and easiest way for a Limbaugh-Loving Republican to express the error of their ways to the king himself.”
But after Mr. Gibbs on Wednesday acknowledged his comments weren’t helping the discourse, Republicans leaders pounced.
“Now that the Obama administration has declared their own distractions, diversions and manipulations strategy to be counterproductive, House Republicans would like to see this administration join us in our bipartisan national conversation about job creation, stimulating small business and middle-class tax relief,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
“They should apologize to the American people for supporting these tactics and get back to work,” Mr. Dayspring said.
Mr. Limbaugh himself said the Democrats were playing rope-a-dope.
“Their standard operating procedure: They need a demon to distract and divert from what their agenda is. They need a demon about whom they can lie so as to persuade average Americans that they’re the good guys, the benevolent good guys, and the mean SOBs are their enemies trying to stop this great young little president from doing miraculous and wonderful things,” he said.
Conservative organizer Richard A. Viguerie, however, said the “Rushification of the GOP is inevitable … because no one else is acting like a Republican leader.”
“Limbaugh and [Fox News’ Sean] Hannity and most all of their conservative colleagues have something to say. They actually believe in something. They have the confidence of their convictions. They don’t cower in fear of the president’s popularity,” he said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, sought to counter that image during a meeting with Republican members Wednesday morning, saying that they “have a responsibility to tell the country” that Mr. Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget is “a bad budget.”
Signaling that Republicans are ready to take on Mr. Obama more directly after avoiding head-on criticism for much of his first five weeks, Mr. Boehner said, “There’s no point in triangulation.”