Politics & Media

Squabbles on the Left as Obama Morphs into Carter

Facing a likely drubbing at the polls in November, Democrats are in finger-pointing mode, and not just at Fox News.

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The current intramural catfight between left-wing pundits, reporters, bloggers and activists, by turns reasonable and nasty, makes for entertaining political theater on several levels. The dissolution of the nearly unanimous smugness that was ubiquitous from the moment it was obvious Barack Obama would win the 2008 election—I’d say that was when John McCain tried to duck the first debate to “deal” with the unfolding financial catastrophe that October—and held fairly firm until the GOP won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia 10 months ago, has largely disappeared. Outside of Washington, it’s a relatively small number of Americans who follow the daily to-and-fro of “progressive” journalists—sorry, I still don’t see why “liberal” doesn’t work anymore—but the caterwauling online and in print that pits the true Obama believers and those who doubt the President’s political strategy (and even competence) is, at least to this observer, a lot more nourishing than when Democratic lackeys such as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg were prematurely suggesting that Mt. Rushmore needed repair work to include the 44th president.

During the past week, I donned galoshes and waded into the pit of left-wing punditry and must say it was a useful exercise, one that’s recommended to (but won’t be heeded) the sheep who march in step to the shameless demagoguery of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. There’s a bounty of disharmony on the left, but a few pieces stick out, as former brothers-in-arm are now in opposing camps: David Corn and John Judis, for example, fret that Obama has blown, at least for now, a unique opportunity; on the other hand, E.J. Dionne and Jonathan Alter, represent the faction who simply can’t believe Americans are so dumb that they can’t comprehend the astonishing progress Obama has made in his first term, even if it hasn’t been communicated in the most efficacious manner.

Writing for Politics Daily
on Aug. 27, Corn (an intelligent man, who nonetheless doesn’t normally trade in black humor) cracked me up when he echoed what any number of his counterparts on the Republican side have been saying: “[T]he White House’s effort to brand the past three months as ‘Recovery Summer’ is no blockbuster success… [H]ow many times were you at a barbecue and some asked, ‘Hey, how’s your Recovery Summer going?’”

Corn, like anyone who absorbs and writes about the minutiae of politics, wonders why Obama and his aides haven’t pounded the media (and therefore the public) with economic revival proposals, rather than promoting a widespread agenda. In Corn’s opinion (and also the New Republic’s Judis), Obama and the Democratic Congress are not communicating a sense of urgency on the continued loss of jobs; Iraq, Afghanistan and education are by no means minor issues, but they simply don’t resonate with voters right now. Even the New York Times felt compelled to editorialize on Aug. 29 about Obama’s inability to grab the public megaphone on the economy. Obama couldn’t have been happy when he read the first sentence of the editorial: “If President Obama has a big economic initiative up his sleeve, as he hinted recently, now would be a good time to let the rest of us in on it.”

However, Corn misses a broader point with the following two sentences: “Democrats were hoping that a summer economic turn-around would ease the way toward the fall elections. But no such harvest is looming.” I agree that Congressional Democrats are in for a shellacking in November—whether it’s a loss of 25 or 40 seats in the House, four or eight Senate seats—but as he writes from a left-wing perspective, Corn ignores those Americans who are independents, Republicans or libertarians. Granted, for a minority of showboats within those groups, politics is a pure blood sport, and damn the consequences for the country as long as their views are celebrated, but I’m certain that a majority of those Americans would prefer an economy that’s solidly on the rebound to a reversal of party control in Congress. Is that naïve? I don’t think so, even if saying so means I won’t be receiving antler cuff links from Palin’s burgeoning political machine.

As I’ve written previously, Obama’s decisive victory in 2008 was not only the result of his brilliant sense of timing—he identified his “moment” and had the guts to grab it, ignoring the wisdom of party elders and Clinton spear-carriers—and campaign strategy, but also because of the profound disinterest among independents and conservatives in the election. Compared to an economic maelstrom that no one under 70 had ever experienced, a mere presidential election was small potatoes. Yes, John McCain was an abysmal candidate, and his selection of Palin as a running mate was a brutal insult, but millions of voters who didn’t buy a word of Obama’s sweeping liberal rhetoric just shrugged their shoulders, and said “Why not give this guy a chance? Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll keep things from getting worse.” In other words, people like me were going for the Hail Mary pass, and though fairy tales don’t come true—Obama, as John Judis acknowledges, resembles Jimmy Carter more than FDR or Ronald Reagan—that was the mindset at the time.

(The Times’ obnoxious op-ed columnist Frank Rich—who’ll soon be wheeled away to the funny farm if he doesn’t stop fixating on Beck and Rupert Murdoch—has stepped into the Obama as Carter camp. His Aug. 29 piece, mostly devoted to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer’s exhaustive profile last week of David and Charles Koch, offered this conclusion: “When John Kennedy’s patriotism was assailed by [John] Birchers calling for his impeachment, he gave a major speech denouncing their ‘crusades of suspicion.’ And Obama? So far, sadly, this question answers itself.”)

Judis’ cover story for the Sept. 2 New Republic, “The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama,” caused a stir in his community, and in a follow-up articlehe said the “private” criticism included “words far too incendiary to print in a family magazine.” (This was rather touching and quaint, not only for the nostalgia of daily newspapers using the phrase “barnyard epithets,” but also the notion that families trade the earnest The New Republic from dad to mom to the middle-schoolers like it was an issue of Life in the 1960s.) Judis argues Obama has “spurned” today’s populist anger among the middle class, remaining in a cerebral, academic bubble instead of crafting a message, and repeating it over and over, that he’s working tirelessly to jump-start the economy.

This is in stark contrast to Reagan, Judis writes, who politically weathered the recession during his first term by relentlessly asking Americans to “stay the course.” Obama, on the other hand, “has a strange aversion to confrontational politics.” Judis: “Why has the White House failed to convince the public that it is fighting effectively on its behalf? The principal culprit is clearly Barack Obama.” Judis, whose liberal credentials can’t be questioned, doesn’t diminish what Obama’s been able to ram through Congress, such as healthcare, but is simply talking strategic politics. While Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter grudgingly agrees that Obama’s White House needs “a crisper message on jobs,” he applauds the President for “keeping his legendary cool,” in the face of declining poll numbers and Democratic panic. But that’s about where the criticism ends: Alter devotes most of his August 28 Newsweek essay to the absurd smears against Obama—that he’s a Muslim, wasn’t born in the United States and is a socialist—and blames Fox News, the Republican leadership and right-wingers for the President’s political troubles. He says, “[I]f smash-mouth tactics are validated by huge GOP gains in the midterm elections, then Big Lie politics may be with us for good.”

Well, no. Lies, smears, wacky conspiracy theories, dirty tricks and the like are part of politics and weren’t invented with the presidency of Barack Obama. Liberal commentators are understandably frustrated and perplexed by Obama’s inability not only to counteract his jingoistic and mean-spirited critics but also his reluctance (not unlike John Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign) to fight for what he believes in. After all, Obama is the President of the United States, with more power at his disposal than a cable television station or radio personality. If he can’t, or won’t, control his message by working the media and public as Kennedy and Reagan did, then the possibility—which the left was convinced of—of his legacy as a “transformational” leader becomes less likely month by month.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 30, 2010, 07:39AM
    Great piece. Although sometimes I feel a little twang of sympathy for the President as his weaknesses are punished by right-wing media grotesques like Beck and Hannity, I cant help but recall the beatings that Republicans have endured for the past eight years. If you dish it you have to be able to take it and I think this is something that the left is having to come to terms with. "The dissolution of the nearly unanimous smugness that was ubiquitous from the moment it was obvious Barack Obama would win the 2008 election" -perfect
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    Aug 30, 2010, 09:06AM
    I'm a little surprised Russ that you have so quickly jumped on the "Obama can't control his message" bandwagon. Unlike the time of Reagan, most citizens no longer revere the role of the president of the U.S. I'd say Clinton and Bush pretty much insured that transformation. As a result, I'm no longer sure that the president does have much more power than a talking head who can bombard the airwaves 24/7. Unwritten rules such as "don't speak poorly of the president on foreign soil" and "don't question the patriotism of the president" no longer exist. Furthermore, thanks in large part to the internet, the press and public have the attention span of an A.D.D. afflicted hummingbird. To think that any president could turn around the worst economy of my life time, in less than 2 years is ludicrous. Particularly when one considers the "global-economy". Do I like Obama's policies? NO. Do I think his problem is messaging, some but not really. The real problem here is a dying media trying to drag everyone down with it. Do you really think that Reagan is not a U.S. citizen would have been a story entertained by WSJ and NYT for more than a day? Do you think idiots like Sarah Palin and Beck, could ride the wave of popularity and implied legitimacy during the Reagan years they way they do now? Do you think that a orange-hued minority leader or a female speaker could get away with the constant spewing of vitriol without facts during the Reagan years? I think not.
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    Aug 30, 2010, 10:05AM
    I don't disagree with you, Tex, that today's media quicksand distracts citizens. On the other hand, Americans haven't "revered" the office of US President since JFK was killed. And you're also right that no one could've expected Obama to turn around the economy in his first two years; however, do you see real signs of improvement? And I completely disagree that the President can't dominate the news if he wants to. One of the biggest surprises of Obama's presidency is that he appears complacent. No one wants to see the President on television that often, but in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis, if Obama took 15 minutes or a half hour for an Oval Office address (aping FDR's "fireside chats," I'm betting he'd have more political strength right now.
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    Aug 30, 2010, 11:05AM
    I agree that "reverence" for the presidency has been a declining continuum. I think Nixon and Reagan got away with a lot more B.S. than Bush and Obama could, but I defer to you on the starting point of the decline. The first election I recall was Carter when I was 6. As for the economy, there have been many improvements since 1/09. A few examples, office building/business financing has improved greatly; more positive job growth vs. job loss. Although both are enemic compared to the bubble days when phrases like "real estate always goes up etc." were considered CW, they both show growth where catastrophe was the story du-jour for the second half of 08. Note: I agree that much more effective plans exist than Obama's but to suggest, no real improvement, betrays a short memory for how collosally fucked things appeared to be in October 08. As for the power of the president, unless he is acting/commenting on war, most people would rather follow the antics of Sarah and Beck than Obama. How many people can tell you what his last three Saturday addresses have been vs. what Glen Beck/Sarah Palin said last week or last month? How much coverage of his state of the union was side-tracked by Joe You Lie Wilson? How much of the Healthcare fiasco centered around Death Panels vs. actual, fact-based economics (I don't include any "economic" arguments that include socialism/marxism/communism). On the whole, I think Obama has been a pretty average president with a dreaful cast of characters on both sides of the aisle in the houses. I would rather not vote him back into office, but, outside of Ron Paul, who stands as much a chance of being elected as I do, I see no better alternative. McCain is senile and showed his true colors this mid-term, Boehner, Cantor, Reid and Pelosi like the fight more than governing and every rising star is knocked down so quickly due to prior mentioned cynicism where is a citizen to turn?
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 30, 2010, 11:10AM
    One last point, if the media wasn't as focused on doom and gloom, the public perception of the econmy would be better in turn making for a better economy.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 30, 2010, 03:41PM
    All this analysis. Look we great unwashed at least around 70% do not like being called racists,Nazis's, Terrorists,Homophobes, Tea Baggers, Stupid etc. just because we do not want a Marxist agenda from DC. Want an image that will drive voters to the polls to throw these people out? Nancy Pelosi carrying the oversized gavel held over her head pretty much spitting in the face of everyone in DC that did not want Death Care passed. I will never forget that arrogant smug look on her skin stretched face NEVER. That alone would make me walk over broken glass to remove that B^%&Ch from power.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 30, 2010, 03:49PM
    I agree that the media has its problem, but I also think we need to look at the President(s). Clinton instituted the constant campaign and I believe it has had a terrible effect on the office. The last 3 Presidents have spent way too much time being the head of their party and not enough acting as the head of the entire US. Too many decisions are purely political and mostly partisan. Obama has taken this to new heights. His constant carping about the economy being GWB's fault is disingenuous and he has turned out to have a very deaf ear as far as the American people are concerned. His healthcare decisions were bad enough, his using the Arizona law for political purposes, instead of dealing with the real issues of immigration are sad, and his statement about the mosque (no matter which side you are on) were just dumb--wrong message, from the wrong messenger, at the wrong time, in the wrong forum. Lastly, without buying into the notion of him being an out of touch liberal elitist, he can come across as having a bit of disdain for the American people. Increasingly his comment that "no wonder they cling to guns and religion" does not seem like an isolated mistake.
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  • Go to comment.
    Aug 30, 2010, 08:15PM
    I forgot about the guns & religion remark during his battle against Hillary Clinton. That was elitist. But the "permanent campaign" really began in earnest with Nixon. Clinton, ever the up front egomaniac, was just more upfront about it. You're right that people, aside from the diehards, are sick of hearing about Bush (either they want to forget him or think it's unseemly of Obama to keep blaming him), and at least Bush has had the grace not to criticize Obama, at least in public.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 30, 2010, 08:59PM
    There is nothing Obama or any Democrat can say to the voters. They put a trillion dollars on the line, rolled the dice and lost. These idiots gambled the rent money on their Keynsio-marxism and like all socialist social engineers have landed everyone in the crapper. Its their philosophy that has failed not what's on Barry's teleprompter. In 2007 the Dems took over the Senate and the House. In 2008 they danced to victory on a surge of hope. Nothing has come of any of it but poverty and failure. The Dems have shown themselves to be narrow, arrogant, tyrannical and totally incompetent. We've all seen the results and now its too late. Nancy Pelosi might think that handing out unemployment checks stimulates the economy and the depraved New Agers in San Francisco might still be motivated to send her back to Congress but this November is going to be the worst wipeout ever seen. The Dems lied and they failed and now its time for the bill to come due.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 31, 2010, 02:26AM
    First off - Obama is just proving to be what he has been all along - a socialist. Nobody listened when people were asking questions about his past associations. Next, you're still kidding yourself if you think there is good economic news out there that the president needs to be touting. The 'Times' states "New requests for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, the first decline in a month," then in a few paragraphs lays this down:"Even with last week’s decline, the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 486,750, the greatest amount since November 2009." How does that square? If anything - the MSM is still shilling for Obama and people don't know how bad it is.
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    Aug 31, 2010, 03:58AM
    It's ridiculous to say that Obama's a socialist: would a socialist have Tim Geithner and Larry Summers on his economic team? Would a socialist alternately scold and then curry favor with big business? Of course not.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 31, 2010, 06:11AM
    Lay off the Beck and Palin, Kevlaur. You're embarrassing yourself.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 31, 2010, 11:45AM
    Uh, Mr. Smith, your fair article seems to have aroused some interest. How about wrting one on religion? That might bring more of the citizenry to life.
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    Sep 01, 2010, 05:15AM
    Of course Obama isn't a "socialist" in the strict sense of the word. But he is a "statist" -- that is, he believes government can solve problems by interventions, which too often turn our to create unmanageable unintended consequences. Look, I don't know about everybody else, but when Barry said "we are the ones we've been waiting for" my bullshit meter redlined. I think the left is delusional if they think it would all turn out if Barry just refined his message and communicated better. Sure, his efforts to talk to the American people have been disastrous, but in the end it's the actions that he's taken that have the American public in an uproar. Big spending, mostly to save state government jobs. Big bailouts to save union jobs. Dithering about Afghanistan. Bashing business. "Recovery summer" He's likened to Carter not because he's failed at communicating, but because he's failed. And he's failed because his world-view, shaped in the faculty lounges and in Chicago politics, is antithetical to the American vision. Q.E.D.
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    Sep 01, 2010, 05:33AM
    An uncannily accurate and precise description of Obama's failures, Karl. I think the only thing you left out is that Obama is an extreme narcissist. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve like Clinton, but he really believes in the hype that HE would facilitate the transformation of America back to an admired country. It hasn't happened.
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    Sep 04, 2010, 08:09AM
    I don't know about any of this, Russ. I don't think it's messaging; I don't think that it's spending (which most people don't really care at all about, except that they see it as a synechdoche for economic troubles.) The problem is that they haven't figured out a way to turn the economy around. Recessions are bad for the people in power, period — and that doesn't have anything to do with what the people in power say, or really whether it's their fault. There are a bunch of things Obama's done that I'm not happy with (his Afghanistan policy is the big one.) But if the economy was recovering, he'd be a lot more popular. I just don't think the messaging or lack thereof is all that big a deal in comparison. (I do think he could perhaps do more to improve the economy...but that's a different argument.) Oh, and as for his being a narcissist — anyone who thinks they should be President is a narcissist. Obama is certainly no exception.
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