FCC chair distances himself from Obama on Net Neutrality

That would be the Democratic, Barack Obama-appointed FCC chair, who spent yesterday backpedaling from his boss on a major policy announcement. Obama went so far as to push out a video demanding unilateral action from the FCC on Net Neutrality, the latest White House distraction from the disastrous midterm elections and an attempt to show that Obama is still relevant:

“As long as I’m President,” Obama says into the camera after cheesy, 1996-style buffering graphics, “that’s what I’ll be fighting for, too.” He may be fighting for it, but Obama clearly isn’t managing for it very well. Within hours of this declaration, the man who reports to the White House on this very subject was putting a lot of daylight between Obama and himself:

Hours after President Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission to pass tougher regulations on high-speed Internet providers, the agency’s Democratic chairman told a group of business executives that he was moving in a different direction.

Huddled in an FCC conference room Monday with officials from major Web companies, including Google, Yahoo and Etsy, agency Chairman Tom Wheeler said he preferred a more nuanced solution. His approach would deliver some of what Obama wants but also would address the concerns of the companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T.

“What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business,” a visibly frustrated Wheeler said at the meeting, according to four people who attended. “What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby.”

The dissonance between Obama and Wheeler has the makings of a major policy fight affecting multibillion-dollar industries. The president wants clear rules to prevent Internet service providers from auctioning the fastest speeds to the highest bidders, a scenario that could favor rich Web firms over start-ups.

Indeed — and one would never guess that Wheeler got appointed by Obama himself. The Post notes that Wheeler is a former lobbyist in the telecom industry in the fifth paragraph, but waits a couple of more paragraphs to note that Obama picked him for the job just last year. Wheeler was a major bundler for Obama’s presidential campaign and served on his transition team, too. It’s not as if Wheeler is just some faceless bureaucrat far below Obama’s radar.

And yet, it appears that Obama never bothered to touch base with his own adviser and appointee. Rather than rolling out a smooth transition to some policy, Obama seems to have decided that giving a speech was all he needed to do. Gauged by Wheeler’s reaction to Obama’s stunt, the move seems to have backfired:

He went on to say that he favored a more “nuanced” solution than that laid out by Obama, repeating several times that “I am an independent agency.” Ignoring the small dose of megalomania creeping in there, the message is clear: this FCC chairman ain’t taking no orders.

One has to wonder how badly a President has to bungle executive management to get a bundler to declare his independence from a President. However one conceives the FCC’s position in the federal bureaucracy — technically, all agencies outside the White House are “independent” — the Obama-Wheeler history strongly suggests interdependence at the least, and patronage as the reason Wheeler’s got his current job at all. How Obama managed to get Wheeler so out of the loop that his own man at the FCC stepped all over his message is a question Democrats should be asking themselves, and deciding whether it’s worth marching behind this incompetently-run White House at all.

Republicans are reminding Wheeler that while the FCC is an independent agency, it gets its authority from Congress, and not from presidential speeches:

Top Republicans are sending a letter to Wheeler today urging him to reject Obama’s call to regulate the Internet like a utility. Sen. John Thune, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, and others warn that classifying broadband under Title II would defy the “plain reading” of the law. They also argue it threatens “the jobs and investment made possible by the broadband industry.”

In other words, nice funding you’ve got there. Shame if something … happened to it.