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Obama and the Press

From the Scrapbook

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30
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Obama and the Press

The press corps, its Washington cadre at least, always turns against a president at some point. With Republican presidents that point varies—sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes as many as four days go by after the oath of office before the honeymoon fizzles. With Democratic presidents there is greater suspense. Most reporters are liberals and have a rooting interest in seeing a liberal president succeed. But they also have guild interests that eventually militate against cheerleading, especially when their respect for the president is not reciprocated. Could we be reaching that tipping point with Barack Obama?

The Scrapbook would like to enter into evidence a couple of exhibits from last week’s Washington Post. First is the astonishing front page array of photos from Tuesday’s paper, showing Obama greeting 11 of the 46 foreign leaders who descended on Washington for the much-ballyhooed nuclear summit (“the largest gathering of world leaders called by a U.S. president since FDR’s” time, as the breathless Obama camp followers kept repeating). Outside of the White House’s own website, you would be hard-pressed to find more thoroughly promotional coverage of the president. Note, especially—if you can tear your eyes away from the drama of Obama’s grip-and-grin with Tarja Halonen, president of Finland—the congratulatory headlines flanking the ego wall: “Obama presses for unity on Iran” and “President’s team is optimistic on deficit.” Well, bully for them. 

As an aside, we’re not sure the Post was 100 percent successful in achieving the desired effect. A residual pang of journalistic conscience, perhaps, led them to include in the tableau a photo of Obama bowing, as is becoming habitual with him, to his Chinese overlord, Hu Jintao. And the hagiographic effect, we think, would have been heightened had the Post chosen just one large photo rather than 11, which subtly sends the signal that the nuclear summit was something of a large advertising campaign for Brand Obama. But all in all, it looks like David Axelrod was brought in for the day to serve as the paper’s front-page editor.

The next day was a different story. The Post’s Dana Milbank aired the perennial complaint of Washington reporters—that their affection for the president is no longer reciprocated (he never writes, he never calls). But while it is a perennial complaint, and not one that necessarily endears reporters with the public, this marks its first prominent appearance of the Obama era. Milbank complained:

World leaders arriving in Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit must have felt for a moment that they had instead been transported to Soviet-era Moscow. They entered a capital that had become a military encampment, with camo-wearing military police in Humvees and enough Army vehicles to make it look like a May Day parade on New York Avenue, where a bicyclist was killed Monday by a National Guard truck.

In the middle of it all was Obama—occupant of an office once informally known as “leader of the free world”—putting on a clinic for some of the world’s greatest dictators in how to circumvent a free press.

The only part of the summit, other than a post-meeting news conference, that was visible to the public was Obama’s eight-minute opening statement, which ended with the words: “I’m going to ask that we take a few moments to allow the press to exit before our first session.”

Reporters for foreign outlets, admitted for the first time to the White House press pool, got the impression that the vaunted American freedoms are not all they’re cracked up to be.

Some of this is guild-like special pleading, but that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. Obama’s disregard for the media is epic, and will eventually be reciprocated, at least by the reporters trying to cover the White House. Milbank’s column is a hint that day may be approaching sooner than you think. 

The other factor in play is Obama’s plummeting poll numbers. Gallup last week reported a new low of 47 percent approval for the job the president is doing. White House reporters tend to see falling poll numbers as a sign of incompetence, if not a character flaw. If the president’s numbers keep falling, friendly reporters will start getting snippy. Though given their psychic investment in “The One,” the attacks will probably land more heavily on his top advisers.

Signs of the Times

The ad shown below appeared last week on the Washington, D.C., pages of Craigslist. The Scrapbook notes the job-seeker’s entrepreneurial spirit and keen awareness of the value of a public-sector job in these hard times. We suspect, however, that his “awsome skillset” may end up landing him in a government institution other than the civil service.



Iceland Unveils Debt-Reduction Strategy

Under the headline above, a banker friend of The Scrapbook emails what looks like a ransom note in Icelandic. Translation: “Leave 30 billion euros in a plastic bag at the Iceland Embassy tonight and we will switch off the volcano. Do not call the police!”


Nuclear AwardsNuclear Awards


From Russia with Love

In a world where presidents insult traditional allies and yuck it up with Third World strongmen, The Scrapbook should not be especially surprised by the conduct of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev while visiting the United States. But The Scrapbook was, indeed, surprised​—and not a little irritated too.

It began on April 9 when George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s Good Morning America interviewed the Russian leader, who had been in Washington to attend the “nuclear safety” conference. Stephanopoulos asked Medvedev what he thought of President Obama, and the Russian president—in time-honored fashion—offered the usual anodyne words of praise, including his opinion that Obama is “a thinker.”

At which point, however, Medvedev strayed from diplomatic etiquette in ways The Scrapbook had never observed before. Obama’s status as a “thinker,” he continued with a wink, “distinguishes him from many people.” Stephanopoulos’s well-coiffed hair appeared to stand on end, and he leaned forward to catch Medvedev’s next bon mot: “Obviously I do have someone in mind. I don’t want to offend anyone.” Thereupon Stephanopoulos giggled so hard that the Russian president could scarcely keep a straight face. 

In one sense, The Scrapbook is sympathetic to Medvedev: If he had made a public joke about the brainpower of his predecessor as president, Vladimir Putin, he might well have faced arrest upon his return to Moscow​—or worse. So now that George W. Bush is safely out of office, how much easier it is to make juvenile comments on American television about the twice-elected president of the United States, who once graciously referred to Medvedev in public as “a smart guy.” 

Or maybe not so smart. What stunned The Scrapbook, of course, was the idea that Medvedev would not just demonstrate the traditional bumptiousness of modern Russian leaders​—a murderer’s row of mass killers, drunks, KGB thugs, and geriatric tyrants​—but would choose to insult an American president in the president’s own country. Evidently, the Russians still have much to learn about civility. 

As for Stephanopoulos: The transition from enabling an impeached Bill Clinton to giving smirking performances on early morning TV seems to have taught him nothing at all.


Sentences We Didn’t Finish

‘A year ago in Prague, Barack Obama​—treading deliberately and dramatically further down the path of disarmament than his predecessors of either party had dared to go​—​drew his portrait of a world substantially freed from the fear of atomic annihilation. This week, responding to his leadership, the nations of the world​—​with a few notable exceptions on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide​—​sent their leaders to Washington to signal their assent .  .  . ” (David Broder, “Obama and the Challenge of Slow Change,” Washington Post, April 15).


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