If White House communications director Anita Dunn leaves behind a legacy when she resigns her post at the end of this month, it will likely be for her dubious role in dividing the country as part of an administration that so grandly promised to bring it together.
When Dunn took over the job last May, she was presented as a longtime Obama confidant who whose pull with the president and his inner circle would help the administration craft its governing message. But, in what has become a pattern within the administration, the message that emerged was unabashedly partisan and aggressively polarizing – a stark contrast to the hopeful tone of political unity and national reconciliation that Obama sounded during the presidential campaign. Dunn herself, meanwhile, became the latest exemplar of the ideological extremism that time and again has surfaced within the administration, making a mockery of its centrist conceit to represent all Americans.
Ironically, given her role of shaping the administration’s image in the media, Dunn’s tenure in the White House will be most remembered for her high-profile fight with the country’s leading cable news outlet. Indeed, the administration has yet to recover from Dunn’s bare-knuckled campaign against FOX News, which she kicked off during an October appearance on CNN. Dismissing FOX as nothing more than a “wing of the Republican Party,” Dunn insisted that other media outlets should ignore its coverage. “Let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN,” Dunn urged her hosts at the rival network. Sources within FOX would later reveal that Dunn had devised an official strategy to ostracize FOX News and to keep the president and other high-level officials from conducting interviews with FOX reporters.
It didn’t succeed. In fact, Dunn’s campaign – a brazen attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a network deemed insufficiently reverential toward the administration – backfired badly. Not only did intimidation from on-high make the administration look mean-spirited and vindictive, but it failed to marginalize FOX’s coverage. Instead, Dunn’s efforts pushed competing liberal cable networks into a rare moment of professional solidarity with FOX. When the administration tried to bar FOX reporters from an interview with White House “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg, all the major cable outlets boycotted the interview. The White House, its bullying tactics exposed, was forced to give in. Even the administration’s allies on the Left were unimpressed. The Nation – no reflexive ally of FOX News – called on the administration to stop “whining” about its media critics.
Dunn’s campaign to demonize FOX was nevertheless instructive. It revealed that a liberal administration, so eager to cloak its policies in the language of consensus, was willing to use illiberal tactics to silence media outlets that questioned the wisdom of those policies, sometimes simply by reporting on them.
How to account for the seeming contradiction? Perhaps the best answer was supplied by FOX commentator Glenn Back, who made much of Dunn’s previously unnoticed public admission that Chinese dictator Mao Zedong was among her “favorite political philosophers.” Dunn later claimed that she had meant the statement to be ironic, and perhaps that was so. But if Beck’s segment resonated, it was because Dunn’s own political inclinations – not least an apparent intolerance of dissent – seemed to take a page out of Mao’s book.
Dunn’s departure in December cannot be taken as straightforward admission of failure. Her White House post was always temporary, even if Dunn does leave it a month earlier than initially intended. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that her time on the job has not gone as planned. At a time when the wise course for the administration would have been to show more empathy for the concerns of its critics – a growing number, if polls and recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey are to be believed – the combative Dunn positioned the administration squarely on the offensive. The price for that strategy can be seen most clearly in the grassroots opposition to the president’s economic policies, which seems to have been only energized by the efforts of the administration and its supporters to cast critics as a radical, even “racist” fringe.
Anita Dunn might have approved of that strategy. As it concerned FOX News, of course, she did approve it. But then Dunn has an advantage that Obama does not. By December, she will no longer have to sell the American public on the wisdom of the administration’s policies and the wickedness of its opponents. The administration, though, will have an increasingly disaffected country to contend with.