As a rule, the press is the scourge of presidents. They’re expected to endure unending scrutiny, mistrust, and badgering—plus hostility if they’re Republicans—by a hectoring herd of reporters and commentators in the mainstream media. But there’s an exception to the rule: President Obama.
It’s counterintuitive, but Obama has been hurt by the media’s leniency. Both his presidency and reelection prospects have suffered. He’s grown lazy and complacent. The media have encouraged him to believe his speeches are irresistible political catnip, though they aren’t. His overreliance on words hasn’t helped.
The kind of media pressure that can cause a president to sharpen his game, act with urgency, or take bolder steps—that has never been applied to Obama. If it had, I suspect he’d be a more effective, disciplined, energetic, and popular president today. Ronald Reagan is a good role model in this regard. When the media attacked him over gaffes in the 1980 campaign, “Reagan responded like all competitive men by working to improve himself,” says Reagan historian Craig Shirley. “Experience taught him to be better and try harder.” He took this lesson into the White House.
I don’t want to exaggerate the media’s baneful influence on Obama. It’s hardly the main reason for his decline. It’s a secondary reason, and it continues to have an impact.
Absent pushing and prodding by the press, the Obama presidency has atrophied. His speeches are defensive and repetitive and filled with excuses. He passes the buck. With persistently high unemployment and a weak economy, Obama recently declared, in effect, “I have a plan. See you after my vacation.” The press doesn’t goad him to lead.
On the contrary, the media have condoned Obama’s avoidance of leadership. It started when he let Nancy Pelosi draft the $800 billion stimulus and continued when congressional Democrats put together the health care, cap and trade, and financial industry reform bills. Few media eyebrows were raised. True, the press attacked his 2012 budget as inadequate. But when he replaced it with a partisan speech, the media’s criticism of this bizarre and unprecedented behavior was mild.
The White House disputes suggestions Obama isn’t leading. Following a nationally televised speech by the president in July, Ed Henry of Fox News asked about the nonexistence of an “Obama plan” for solving the spending and debt problem. “Republican talking point,” press secretary Jay Carney said dismissively.
A few days later, Carney acted surprised at a Wall Street Journal reporter’s failure to understand how extending unemployment benefits once more would create jobs. “I would expect a reporter from the Wall Street Journal would know this as part of the entrance exam,” he said.
In Washington, the plight of the jobless has been underplayed, and not only by the media. The White House has promised for two years to “pivot” to an agenda stressing job creation, but still hasn’t made the turn. On his three-day bus tour in the Midwest, Obama seemed oblivious to the depth of the unemployment trauma.
“Private sector job growth is good,” he said in Alpha, Illinois. In reality, it’s bad and getting worse. “The economy is now growing again,” he said. Barely. Obama said trade deals and patent reform would promote hiring, if only Congress would approve them. But it’s the president who has delayed the trade treaties, and both houses of Congress have passed patent reform measures.
The media routinely give Obama a pass on such stuff. On the tour, Obama insisted, as he has many times before, that he saved the nation from a “Great Depression.” So far as I know, the press has never challenged this dubious claim. But it is belied by the fact the recession came to an official end in June 2009, months before Obama’s policies could have played more than a minimal role.
Ask yourself this: If unemployment were treated by the media today as the top national issue, as it was in 1982 and 1983 when Reagan was president, would Obama be dawdling? Not likely. The jobless rate then was only slightly higher than it is now. But in those days, the press focused relentlessly on the jobless.
“If Washington policymakers were reminded night after night of the real unemployment heartache in America now, they would forge a bipartisan jobs plan immediately,” says Washington consultant David Smick. “Here we have a real crisis and nobody’s talking about it.” At least not enough.
A saying of a friend of mine touches on why the media disserve Obama by tolerating his habit of offering excuses for every failure or shortcoming of his presidency. The saying goes, winners accept responsibility, losers make excuses.
When the negotiations over a $4-billion “grand bargain” on spending cuts and deficit reduction broke down in July, the White House blamed House speaker John Boehner for walking out rather than acceding to a hefty tax hike. Who did the media blame? Boehner, naturally.
But is the public mollified by excuses? I don’t think so. Had Obama summoned Boehner back to the White House, eased his demand for higher taxes, and wrapped up a deal, the public would have been impressed. Obama would have gotten credit, just as he did last December when a bipartisan compromise was reached on spending and taxes. This time, the notion that Obama, as president, might have a responsibility to forge an agreement was lost on the media.
Interviewed by Anthony Mason of CBS News last week, Obama offered a fresh excuse for failing to get his way with Congress. People “want me to be able to wrangle Congress and get them moving,” he said. “And you know, we’ve got this thing, separation of powers. . . . It means that there are times where Congress is gonna do things” he opposes. Separation of powers? He might as well have blamed Hamilton and Madison.
His interviewer didn’t follow up on that unique alibi. He asked Obama, were he a middle-class voter, if he would vote for him for a second term. “Well,” Obama said, “I actually would.”
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.