Friday, August 20, 2010

The Media We Have

The following parody of Bai is spot on.
Ezra Klein:
Where Obama went wrong (Bizarro earth remix)

Democrats in Washington are divided and somewhat puzzled over President Obama’s fading popularity. They reject, of course, the Republican view that the president is basically a showy communicator whose preference for speeches rather than action has alienated voters. But that’s about as far as the consensus goes.

In conversations over the past few weeks, some of the party’s leading strategists told me that it all comes down to accomplishments, or -- here’s that ubiquitous word again -- “deliverables.” The president, who ran such a brilliant campaign, they argue, has utterly failed to live up to the promise of his election. They cited perceived missed opportunities like the president’s decision to expand S-CHIP rather than pursuing health-care reform and suggested that he hadn’t done enough to re-regulate the financial sector in the aftermath of one of the worst financial crises in the nation's history.

But when I put the same question to Michael Knowing, the former White House chief of staff who led Obama’s transition team, I heard what sounded like a deeper and more persuasive explanation. You might call it the “communications box” theory.

Like other Democrats, Knowing, who now runs the liberal Center for American Prospects and is arguably the most influential Washington Democrat not currently in government, assumes that many of the president’s struggles were unavoidable. Stubborn joblessness and anemic growth have thus far overwhelmed the president's persuasive powers and defined the administration.

But to whatever extent Obama controlled the fate of his young presidency, Knowing believes that his most consequential decisions on domestic policy stemmed from one overarching conviction: that the president’s most important job was to govern in a post-partisan, consensus-oriented manner, which required him to largely give up on his large legislative promises.

“By focusing on his larger image, which was understandable, they necessarily gave up big legislative accomplishments,” Knowing said, referring to White House advisers. “They cast him as a builder of consensus, not a driver of consensus. They were kind of locked into their campaign rhetoric, even as the country hungered for action.”

This was not a given. All presidents have broad thematic priorities, but they have laws they want to pass, too. Ronald Reagan saw a major transformation of the American tax code as a larger goal. Bill Clinton publicly hammered away at his ideas remaking the American health-care system.

Unlike his recent predecessors, however, Obama was defined more by his unlikely campaign victories than his legislative accomplishments, and he seemed determined, above all else, to deliver on the thematic promises he made to voters. He chose a vice president and a chief of staff who contributed to his post-partisan image, and he filled his most senior posts (aside from those occupied by longtime advisers) with campaign aides.

“That strategy was built on the no-economic-stall option,” Knowing said. “In other words, the idea was that you didn’t have to get the unemployment rate to a certain number, but you had to respond to the American people's hunger for a less contentious political sphere, and people would appreciate that, and it would be palpable, and it would lead to the sort of Republican cooperation needed to pass major bills.”

The problem, as Mr. Knowing says, is that “we’re all still waiting for that.”

(Source, context. And just to clear up any confusion: Yes, this is a parody. It's easy to imagine an Obama administration that did exactly what a lot of its critics suggested and is now being hammered for not pursuing a more ambitious legislative agenda.)

Jonathan Bernstein: Oy Bai

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.

Just last month, Matt Bai "discovered" that the source of Barack Obama's troubles was that the Democrats weren't specific enough in their campaign proposals during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. He's back again today with yet another explanation for Obama's sagging approval ratings; now, it seems that Americans have soured on Obama because he's too much of a legislator. It was nonsense then, and it's nonsense now. It's not complicated at all: Obama's approval ratings have fallen because the economy stinks. End of story. Anything else is on the margins...and it's certainly possible that everything else is pushing his ratings up, not down.

The sad part is that there are at least two interesting stories Bai could have told. One is a story of what Democratic insiders believe is going on. It sounds as if he actually got a fair amount of that...he hears "the party's leading strategists" tell him that the president has a problem with framing issues properly, and really that's what John Podesta is telling him, too. Unfortunately, because the story is written as Bai's search for a hidden "real" explanation, he basically dismisses what those strategists have to say, and perhaps much of what Podesta has to say. But those things are actually interesting, and important. Do leading Democrats believe that the president has veered too far to the left? Do they believe that all or at least most of the party's troubles are basically just a reflection of the economy? Or do they in fact believe that message, and not substance, is the problem? What these insiders believe is going on can be terribly important -- not because they are well-positioned to actually know the true explanation, but because they're likely to act on whatever it is that they believe, and those actions will have consequences.

The second story Bai could have told is one about how the president is actually apportioning his time and effort between legislating and other activities. Obama has been criticized for placing a very low priority on filling vacancies at the Fed, and more generally for being slow to nominate people to executive branch positions, but we haven't seen all that much reporting about the process. Now, that would have required a different set of interviews for Bai, but it certainly is possible that he could have shed some light on this story. Is Obama in fact, as a former legislator, prone to overlooking other aspects of the presidency? I don't know the answer to that, but it's an important question -- even though outside of perhaps the Fed positions, it's not likely to be a question that will explain much about his current approval levels. Still, an answer to this question could help us understand quite a bit about the Obama administration, since many things are important even if they don't affect approval ratings and elections.

Instead, unfortunately, Bai gives us fantasy. We're told that former governors Clinton and Reagan didn't have this legislator's problem that's dragging Obama down, but of course Clinton and Reagan were if anything less popular in the second August of their presidencies than Obama is. We're told that his legislator's focus prevented him from entering into "White House partnerships with Republican governors or even with conservative foundations or industry groups," but not told about the fate of Charlie Crist, who was booted out of his party for daring to work with the president. And in a truly breathtaking flight from reality...well, let me give you the paragraph:

Think of it this way: if your singular goal is to pass bills, and Democratic lawmakers are in a frenzy this week over A.I.G.’s bonuses or Goldman Sachs’s investments, then you might feel forced to castigate big business, too.

Huh? So the problem for Barack Obama is that if only he wasn't foolishly allowing himself to be held hostage by crazed Dem members of Congress, he'd be free to embrace AIG and Goldman? And that would make him more popular? You know, I don't really think that the president's rhetoric can change very much, but even I am fairly sure that had Obama heroically stood with AIG, Goldman, and big business, he'd be a good 5-10 points lower in the polls, not to mention that various liberal senators and governors might suddenly be feeling the urge to take their summer vacations this year in Iowa and New Hampshire.

All told, it's a disaster of a piece, especially since it appears to be a waste of some potentially interesting interviews.

You know...this isn't only Matt Bai's fault. It's also a mistake by the Times. The category of reported analysis piece was, if I have the history correct, basically invented in reaction to the advent of TV, and especially 24-hour cable news networks -- no longer would readers really count on their morning newspaper to tell them the basics of what had happened the previous day, and so newspapers tried to find things to do that TV news wasn't giving their viewers. The first problem is that the sorts of things that make someone a good traditional reporter aren't necessarily the things that make that person a good analyst. The second is that Bai and the Times aren't living in a world dominated by Walter Cronkite or the old CNN Headline News Network; they're living in a news environment that has Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait constantly pointing out the connection between the economy and presidential success, and also political scientists such as Brendan Nyhan and John Sides and Seth Masket and, well, me, all of whom have carefully explained the relationships between the economy, presidential approval, and elections. There's still room for reported analysis -- in fact, done well it's as important as ever -- but it's no longer a scarce resource, and I think in practice that means that to be worthwhile, it has to be engaged with the larger conversation. New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat have done that with their opinions, by addressing counterarguments in their (highly recommended) NYT blogs. I don't know, but I think it must help them to know that whatever they write they'll have to be prepared to defend.

Bai? He just seems to stumble from one evidence-free theory to the next, apparently never stopping to consider the critiques he leaves in his wake. Just a mess.

Stopping by the L.A. Times' website this morning, I noticed a bizarre headline: "Obama now blames poor job numbers on congressional inaction. Wait! His party runs Congress." The emphasis was in the original.

This seemed pretty dumb on its face, so, naturally, I click on the link. It turned out to be another bizarre Andrew Malcolm tirade, with inane policy insights. Did you know, for example, that "employers are holding back on hiring" because of "the certainty of new taxes after Nov. 2"? Probably not, since no one who knows what they're talking about would present such nonsense as fact, especially when writing for a major newspaper.

But then we get to the heart of the matter.

According to the president, he's been "adamant" with Congress for months now about a new jobs bill to help small businesses. Obama says this really good bill is stalled in the Senate, where so much administration legislation has been crammed through so effectively by Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid's been so good at it, in fact, that he's now running for his political life in a reelection campaign back in Nevada where Obama's legislation is not so popular.

Reid's up against a conservative Republican. So, That means that Harry Reid must be a Democrat, just like Obama, and just like 59% of the Senate's votes.

The very same party that has controlled both houses of Congress since the 2006 election and really controlled them both since the 2008 hopey-changey balloting.

So, facing the growing grim possibility of a GOP surge on Nov. 2, is this maybe the start of buddy-bickering within the Democratic huddle? Vulnerable people pointing the proverbial political finger of blame at someone else? That's ridiculous, of course.

I just have the hardest time understanding why the L.A. Times would publish such lazy drivel. Obama and Reid want a bill to boost small business incentives; Republicans don't. This might be "the start of buddy-bickering within the Democratic huddle"? Given that Dems agree on the policy, what does that even mean?

And if the Democratic majority wants to pass a bill, and Republicans refuse to allow an up-or-down vote, why is it "ridiculous" to blame the GOP for its obstructionism?

The point of the childish item seems to be that Democrats control Congress, so they should be able to pass what they want. That might be true, if the Senate operated by majority rule, as it used to before modern abuses became commonplace. But Malcolm's little rant acts as if filibusters don't even exist.

To be sure, Malcolm is a partisan activist. I get it. His work is intended to reflect Republican press releases, so items like these serve their intended purpose.

But shouldn't the L.A. Times, as a major news outlet, feel some qualms about paying to publish deliberately misleading nonsense?

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