White House declares war on CNBC ranter

If Rick Santelli becomes the public face of opposition to President Obama's housing plan, the White House wins.

Published February 20, 2009 9:18PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- The White House has declared war on Rick Santelli.

The CNBC squawker is already, by now, infamous for his rant about "the losers' mortgages." Matt Drudge and the conservative blogosphere tried to turn him into the new Joe the Plumber -- or perhaps something even bigger. Now, if White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has his way, Santelli may become something quite different -- the public face of opposition to President Obama's plan to stabilize the housing market.

Gibbs tore into Santelli today, blasting him from the White House podium with language that would cause an international incident if CNBC were a sovereign nation. "I'm not entirely sure where Mr. Santelli lives, or in what house he lives, but the American people are struggling every day to meet their mortgage, stay in their job, pay their bills, to send their kids to school, and to hope that they don't get sick or that somebody they care for gets sick and sends them into bankruptcy," Gibbs said, all the usual Southern charm drained from his voice, replaced with venom. "I think we left a few months ago the adage that, if it was good for a derivatives trader, that it was good for Main Street. I think the verdict is in on that." If Santelli didn't like the housing plan, Gibbs said, it was because he didn't have any idea what was in it. "Every day when I come out here, I spend a little time reading, studying on the issues, asking people who are smarter than I am questions about those issues," Gibbs went on. "I would encourage him to read the president's plan and understand that it will help millions of people, many of whom he knows. I'd be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I'd be happy to buy him a cup of coffee. Decaf."

And then he twisted the dagger a little: "Let me do this, too. This is a copy of the president's home affordability plan. It's available on the White House Web site, and I would encourage him, download it, hit print, and begin to read it." He wrapped up the Santelli portion of the briefing with one final zinger. "It's tremendously important that for people who rant on cable television to be responsible and understand what it is they're talking about," Gibbs said. "I feel assured that Mr. Santelli doesn't know what he's talking about."

Watch Gibbs here:

The move was deft; the digs made Santelli into another heartless rich guy who doesn't care about your troubles, rather than the populist voice of outrage Drudge tried to make him out to be. And Gibbs conflated Santelli's blustery bloviation with any other criticism of the plan. If the White House can fight Santelli -- who isn't a sympathetic figure unless you're the type who believes Montgomery Burns is a hero of American capitalism -- instead of actually engaging with questions about whether Obama's plan is letting homeowners off the hook, it's winning. White House aides knew a question about Santelli's rant was probably coming, and they clearly expected Gibbs's attacks to make news (which the briefings don't often do). It was a classic case of seizing an opportunity when it lands in your lap.

Fighting Santelli, after all, just isn't all that difficult. Within minutes of the briefing's end, Santelli was on CNBC, burbling happily about being invited to the White House. "I want to let him know, I would love to accept, and the decaf sounds good," he said. "I do prefer tea."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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