Are the media beginning to catch on to President Obama? The answer is a tentative yes. This doesn’t mean the press is softening its hostility to Mitt Romney. Heaven forbid! But at least for now Obama is getting razzed by the very people who used to uphold and defend him.
It’s about time. Obama and his team have been playing the media for fools. Think of the stories the White House has foisted on them (and some have bought). Obama secretly favors the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan. The Republican landslide in 2010 was consistent with Obama’s election in 2008—both pleas for change. His endorsement of same-sex marriage was courageous. And besides “gutsy call,” there was “nobody messes with Joe.”
A turnaround was perceptible last month after the president claimed “federal spending since I took office has risen at the slowest pace of any president in almost 60 years.” This went too far. It clashed with the reality of a presidency in which hefty spending increases and soaring deficits are hallmarks.
Media fact checkers waded in, not from the right but from the Washington Post and the Associated Press. “Obama claim of thrifty spending falls short of reality,” AP concluded. Glenn Kessler of the Post said the president’s data “are flawed.” It was a full debunking, but Obama aides didn’t give up. They continued to argue Obama had slowed spending.
That’s another mark of the Obama presidency with potential for media attention: repeating a claim after it’s been exposed as false, misleading, or flimflam. Obama did this early in his presidency when he zapped House Republicans for rejecting his request to work with him on the economic stimulus. In truth, the stimulus bill was already a done deal—crafted entirely by Democrats—when the president spoke to the House GOP conference.
The practice popped up this spring in the Obama reelection video. The narrator, Tom Hanks, raises the story of Obama’s mother and suggests her health insurer curtailed her medical coverage as she was battling her terminal cancer. It “drained all her resources,” Obama adds in the video. But according to a biography of his mother published in May 2011, only disability coverage to compensate for lost wages was in dispute, not medical coverage.
Obama also plays fast and loose with numbers, a blinking target for the press. He said in Dearborn, Michigan, in April that the “most sluggish job growth that we’ve seen” occurred during the Bush presidency, “2000 to 2008.” The Washington Post’s fact checker, however, found that the “worst numbers on record occurred under [Obama’s] watch.” Nonetheless, Obama repeated the claim about Bush a few days later.
Like many Democrats, the president has insisted the health care policy endorsed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney “ends Medicare as we know it.” That policy was adjusted earlier this year to retain traditional Medicare—Medicare as we know it—as an option. But Obama didn’t change his tune. He told Associated Press editors in April that the Romney policy “will ultimately end Medicare as we know it.”
Obama is slippery when assigning responsibility for failures and successes. “Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years,” he said in February. The implication was his energy policies were the cause. Though National Journal, among others, pointed out the oil surge was a result of his predecessor’s policies, the president has persisted in acting as if the credit should go to him.
After Solyndra, the solar energy company, went bust last year, Obama noted that the program under which it was subsidized “predates me.” That is, it was George W. Bush’s program. But the loan guarantee to Solyndra was approved by the Obama administration. Again, months later, Obama was still insinuating the Bush administration was at fault.
Obama’s boldest effort to mislead was the notion that since President Reagan once said millionaires should pay more in taxes than average Joes, today he’d back the Obama-endorsed Buffett Rule to force those earning a million or more a year to pay a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on their individual income. “We could call it the Reagan Rule instead of the Buffett Rule,” he said in April.
No, we couldn’t. Obama was quickly exposed for having quoted Reagan out of context. In context, Reagan was calling for lower tax rates, not higher rates as Obama is. Still, the Reagan biography on the White House website has been updated to say Obama was “calling for the same” as Reagan in promoting the Buffett Rule.
Skirting the truth eventually gets a politician in trouble with the press. And Obama has the additional problem of having run in 2008 as a leader above the corner-cutting often associated with office seekers. So there’s hypocrisy here, the idealist now employing the tricks of the cynic.
Reporters, indeed most journalists, hate hypocrisy. When they spot it, they generally pounce. True, they often exaggerate it, but that wasn’t the case when they jumped on Obama for raising money from rich private equity investors at the same time he was denouncing Romney for his work as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm.
One more thing: arrogance. The press gets its back up at the sight of political operators who see themselves as masters of the universe. Yet that’s the impression of the Obama campaign strategists left by John
Heilemann in a highly revealing essay in New York. They’re cocky, profane, and convinced they play the political game as well as anyone ever has.
A dangerous tendency of politicians is to think so highly of themselves that the media become less important to them. I think Obama has gotten to that point. By denying the press what it craves the most—respect—Obama is asking for trouble. And, finally, he’s beginning to get it.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.