Geoffrey Moore introduced the ideas of Core and Context in his book Living On The Fault Line. He was trying to describe how a corporation's executive management should prioritize their employee's (and their) time. A task was core if it could effect the stock price; everything else was context. Essentially, this is a "stick to your knitting" analysis.
The Crowley brouhaha is core for Obama. We can tell this by three reactions that happened over the weekend. Remember, weekend is where PR flacks send bad news to die, but these happened anyway:
1. The House of Representatives is considering a bill to demand that Obama apologize to Crowley. It's sponsored by a Republican, so it has the feel of "dog bites man." What's interesting is that Rep. McCotter thinks this has legs - otherwise, he wouldn't have introduced it.
2. In news of "man bites dog", Democratic mayor Richard Daley says that Obama blew it. Daley is from Obama's home town of Chicago, so this is very unexpected. Of course Daley would think this, but why on earth would he say it?
3. Obama dropped again in Rassmussen's daily tracking poll, to net -11. The other two are reflections of this, although the devil - and the interesting bits - is in the details.
Core and Context. Politically, anything that can move Obama's political fortunes is core. This incident is effecting his political fortunes: his popularity is dropping, political enemies think he's weakened enough that they can strike, and nominal political allies think he's weakened enough that they don't cover for him. Why?
During the campaign, Obama had two unstated but assumed attributes that attracted much of his support from independent voters: the promise of a post-racial America, and the promise of a well thought out vision for America (spun by the media as "moderate" even though it wasn't). Here's the money quote from Rassmussen:
The President is now seen as politically liberal by 76%. That’s up six points from a month ago, 11 points since he was elected, and the highest total to date. Forty-eight percent (48%) now see him as Very Liberal, up 20 points since he was elected ...So much for that "well thought out" moderate vision thing. Now add Crowley, which belies the post-racial thing. Obama's coat tails were tied to this vision of the man. In a thoughtless, off-the-cuff moment, he let the mask slip, and the nation saw it. He devalued his brand, as the marketing people would say; and devalued brands simply are never repaired. Ever.
And so both enemy and friend start sharpening the political long knives.
Obama is certainly not finished, but he's hurt himself more than people realize. Of course the democrats will continue to support him. Of course the republicans will continue to oppose him. But the independents are shifting away from him, because they think that they know how he ticks - and they don't like it. I believe that historians looking back will see this as one of the key moments in his presidency.
UPDATE 26 July 2009 10:05: As a postscript, I wonder if this might effect the Sotomayor SCOTUS vote. Her "wise latina woman" comment might be seen very differently through the lens of the Crowley incident.