For a "lame duck" politician who's supposed to be licking his wounds after the Democratic Party's steep midterm losses, President Obama these days probably doesn't mind scanning the headlines each morning. Instead of confirming the slow motion demise so many in the pundit class had mapped out for him, the headlines paint a picture of a president, and a country, in many ways on the rebound:
That's probably more good news for Obama in one month than he had in the previous three combined.
And that selection of headlines doesn't cover news of the most recent smooth and efficient enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, the announcement of Obama's executive action to deal with the languishing issue of immigration, his high-profile endorsement of net neutrality, or the United States' landmark agreement with China to confront climate change.
As for Obama's approval rating, it has remained steady in recent months, just as it has for virtually all of 2014. But aren't lame ducks supposed to tumble after tough midterm defeats, the way President George W. Bush did right after the 2006 votes?
Meanwhile, the assumption that Republicans had boxed Obama in politically via their midterm momentum and would be able to bully him around (impeachment! A government shutdown!) hasn't yet come to fruition. To date, their main response to the immigration executive order that Obama issued has been for Republicans to cast a symbolic vote of disapproval. (i.e. Obama called their bluff.)
Already the bloom seems to be coming off the GOP's win. "According to the survey, 50 percent of Americans believe the GOP taking control of the House and the Senate next year will be bad for America," CNN reported this week.
None of this is to say that Obama's surging or that paramount hurdles don't remain on the horizon. But some recent developments do undercut a widely held consensus in the Beltway press that Obama's presidency effectively ended with the midterms and that his tenure might be viewed as a failed one.
Right after the election, a November Economist editorial announced, "Mr. Obama cannot escape the humiliating verdict on his presidency." Glimmers of hope after the midterms were no reason to think Obama had "somehow crawled out of the dark place that voters put him," the Washington Post assured readers. (Post columnist Dana Milbank has recently tagged Obama as a hapless "bystander" who's "turning into George W. Bush.") And a McClatchy Newspapers headline declared, "President Obama Is Now Truly A Lame Duck."
But as the facts on the ground now change, many in the press seem reluctant to drop its preferred script and adjust to the headlines that suggest Obama's second term is not shaping up to be the wreck so many pundits hinted it would be.
Critics pounced after President Obama recently addressed the rising threat of the terror group Islamic State. His answers didn't represent "a national rallying cry" (National Journal). He sent "mixed messages" (ABC News). The president was guilty of an "inartful phrase" (Politico), and he wasn't projecting "an image of presidential resolve" (Washington Post).
The president hadn't necessarily said anything inaccurate or made controversial claims. Critics just didn't like the way he said what he said. It didn't look or sound quite right.
On Meet The Press, Obama conceded he had made a specific error when he played golf after making a public statement about the brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley. "I should've anticipated the optics," he said. "Part of this job is also the theater of it." And he's right, optics do matter for a commander-in-chief, especially in his role as communicator. But optics and stagecraft aren't the only thing. And Beltway pundits proved themselves to be poor judges of optics when a Republican last occupied the Oval Office.
Please recall that the press loved President George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" optics in 2003, which foolishly implied the United States had won the war in Iraq. (NBC's Brian Williams: "He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit.") And don't forget Bush's "bring them on" taunt when he was asked about escalating attacks on American troops inside Iraq. (More than 4,000 Americans subsequently died in fighting there.)
A common complaint about the Beltway press is that journalists obsess over process at the expense of substance. (i.e. Who's up, who's down?) Sadly, we've now eroded to the point where process journalism has been eclipsed by an even more meaningless pursuit: "optics."
Another description for the current press malady is theater criticism. Theater criticism means you don't offer solutions; you don't offer insights or analysis. Theater criticism means you simply detail everything the pitch-poor actor does wrong in terms of word choice, inflection and public emotion. (Or golfing.) Analysis is different. It's more difficult, more rigorous, and it's much needed.
Instead we got the tan suit meltdown. This was an actual tweet last month from one of the largest news organization in America:
How did we arrive at a place so trivial and vacuous?
Media outlets are overlooking President Obama's consistent emphasis on eliminating the threat posed by the extremist group the Islamic State -- and the U.S. airstrikes against it -- to fixate on Obama's recent reference to shrinking the group's influence to a "manageable problem."
Media pundits never seem to tire of writing gun violence prevention's obituary. They seem determined to create a conventional wisdom that no progress on the issue is possible, and shut down any effort to renew a dialogue on public safety legislation that has gone quiet in the halls of Congress despite overwhelming public support for stronger gun laws.
Last week it was the recall election defeats of two Colorado state senators who had supported stronger gun laws that caused some commentators to declare "The Death of Gun Control." They didn't let the facts stand in their way -- the gun laws in question were broadly popular statewide, the recall turnout was extremely low, and efforts by conservatives to recall other pro-gun safety legislators failed. In years past, media have that the power of the National Rifle Association would prevent stronger gun laws from getting consideration.
Now pundits are claiming that comments from the Obama administration following the Navy Yard shooting, deemed insufficiently robust in their calls for stronger laws, mean "RIP for gun control," in the words of The Washington Post's Dana Milbank.
Milbank writes in his September 17 column that "President Obama didn't even try to use the massacre at the Washington Navy Yard to revive the gun-control debate," apparently considering Obama's statement in response to the attack that his administration will "do everything that we can to try to prevent" future tragedies insufficiently specific. In fact, it's not appreciably less specific than his remarks in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, in which he did not lay out any policy goals but said only that "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
One tea leaf Milbank reads to bolster his case that the gun violence prevention debate is over is a selective quotation of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:
At the White House on Tuesday, the Associated Press's Julie Pace noted Obama's subdued response to the shooting and asked if "maybe there's some sort of numbness among the public since these shootings have happened so frequently." Another questioner asked if there's "an exhaustion and an acceptance that this is the new normal."
Press secretary Jay Carney said the president "doesn't accept that it's the new normal."
Maybe not. But the loss of hope for gun control is becoming a durable abnormal.
In fact, a fuller account of Carney's remarks shows that he said the Obama administration would continue to use executive action to address gun violence (the White House announced two new executive actions on gun violence on August 29) and that the administration "continue[s] to call on Congress to listen to the voices of their constituents and legislate accordingly."
From the May 6 edition of MSNBC's PoliticsNation:
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From the October 7 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
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In an April 5 Washington Post column, Dana Milbank wrote that the budget plan released by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) "isn't a serious budget proposal because it fails at the central mission of ending the deficit and taming the debt." Milbank further wrote: "How could the House Republicans make such enormous cuts and yet not solve the debt crisis? Simple: Ryan's proposal isn't a budget. It's a manifesto for the anti-tax cause."
From Milbank's column:
"This is not a budget," Paul Ryan said as he introduced the Republicans' 10-year budget plan. "This is a cause."
Truer words have never been spoken.
The document released by the chairman of the House Budget Committee isn't a serious budget proposal because it fails at the central mission of ending the deficit and taming the debt.
Without question, Ryan makes some severe cuts: Taking hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid, ending the Medicare entitlement, and slashing planned spending on transportation, energy, education, veterans benefits, agriculture payments, counterterrorism and more.
Yet for all these cuts, the Republicans' plan increases the federal debt by more than $8 trillion over the next 10 years, and it continues federal budget deficits until nearly 2040. Under the proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that Ryan and his Republican colleagues claim to support, Ryan's budget wouldn't be in compliance for at least the next quarter century.
How could the House Republicans make such enormous cuts and yet not solve the debt crisis? Simple: Ryan's proposal isn't a budget. It's a manifesto for the anti-tax cause. The GOP plan reduces the government's revenues by $4 trillion over 10 years because of tax cuts, including a lower top rate for businesses and the wealthy.
From the April 3 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
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As I've frequently pointed out, the fact that columnist Richard Cohen is what passes for a "liberal" at the Washington Post pretty thoroughly undermines the idea that the paper's opinion pages lean to the left. In response, people have occasionally asked me "Who says Cohen is supposed to be a liberal?" Well, now, the Post has removed any doubt about the role it thinks Cohen plays at the paper, officially designating him a "left-leaning" columnist:
Dana Milbank is the kind of "left-leaning" columnist who voted for Republican presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 and a Republican-turned-independent in 2008. And who referred to Hillary Clinton as a "mad bitch." Just try to imagine the Post identifying as "right-leaning" a columnist who voted for Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 and called Sarah Palin a "mad bitch."
But it's Richard Cohen's presence on the "left-leaning" list that's really remarkable. Here's a refresher:
In a March 11 Washington Post column, Dana Milbank compared Rep. Peter King's (R-NY) hearings on Muslim radicalization to McCarthyism, writing that King "staged his investigation into the loyalty of Muslim Americans in an appropriate place: a hearing room once used by the House Un-American Activities Committee." He further wrote that the questions during the hearings included "false allegations of subversion," which Milbank wrote "is the very definition of McCarthyism."
From Milbank's column:
Peter King staged his investigation into the loyalty of Muslim Americans in an appropriate place: a hearing room once used by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But the ghost of Tail-Gunner Joe would not be denied. It found a host in the body of freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), who asked Los Angeles Sheriff Leroy Baca, a witness, about his work with a large Muslim group called CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"You are aware that this is a Hamas and . . . Muslim Brotherhood entity?" the lawmaker asked, pronouncing Muslim as "moo-slim."
"No, I'm not aware of that," the sheriff replied.
Cravaack informed Baca that CAIR was founded by two people identified by the FBI as "Hamas members." "Basically you're dealing with a terrorist organization," he said.
"If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with, bring those charges forward," Baca replied, coolly.
Cravaack was indignant. "Are you saying that the FBI was wrong in identifying that CAIR is part of Hamas, an entity of Hamas?"
This is the very definition of McCarthyism: false allegations of subversion. King didn't even bother inviting the group to defend itself.
This is my last day before I begin my abstinence only program for Palin. She certainly hasn't gone as far as Beck has gone into the dark recesses of anti-Semitism. Her mention of blood libel was not to spread the blood libel but to say she's a victim of a (different) blood libel. And I doubt she had any idea what the phrase meant when she made the video. Beck, however, is a very smart man who doesn't do much by accident.
From the October 21 edition of MSNBC's The Last Word:
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As you may recall, last week, "populist" broadcaster Glenn Beck urged his listeners to send their hard-earned money off in a donation to the Chamber of Commerce to fund ads designed to elect Republican congressional candidates. You're not likely to find clearer evidence of the fraudulent nature of right-wing "populism," as I noted at the time:
Glenn Beck is calling on his hardworking listeners to donate money to the Chamber. He is literally asking American workers to give their hard-earned wages back to their employers, so their employers can use that money to advocate a public policy agenda that benefits the rich at the (again: literal) expense of everyone else. It's incredible. It's such a twisted scheme that it's easier to believe as a piece of performance art meant to mock right-wing pseudo-populism. Though if it was art, it would be dismissed as overly broad and heavy-handed.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank weighs in today:
These donors to the cause of the Fortune 500 were motivated by a radio appeal from the de facto leader of the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, who told them: "Put your money where your mouth is. If you have a dollar, please go to . . . the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and donate today." Chamber members, he said, "are our parents. They're our grandparents. They are us."
They are? Listed as members of the chamber's board are representatives from Pfizer, ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Dow Chemical, Ken Starr's old law and lobbying firm, and Rolls-Royce North America. Nothing says grass-roots insurgency quite like Rolls-Royce -- and nothing says populist revolt quite like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In describing the big-business group as "us," Beck (annual revenue: $32 million) provided an unintended moment of clarity into the power behind the Tea Party movement. These aren't peasants with pitchforks; these are plutocrats with payrolls.
There is genuine populist anger out there. But the angry have been deceived and exploited by posers who belong to the same class of "elites" and "insiders" that the Tea Party movement supposedly deplores. Americans who want to stick it to the man are instead sending money to the man.
From the October 11 edition of ABC Radio Network's The John Batchelor Show:
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In a column to be published in Sunday's Washington Post, Dana Milbank reports that Byron Williams, who allegedly shot at California police officers after he was stopped while on his way to kill people at the Tides Foundation and ACLU, received validation for his conspiracy theories from Glenn Beck. Milbank based his column on interviews Williams gave to Examiner.com and Media Matters for America.
From Milbank's column:
Glenn Beck has a friend in California.
"I would've never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there," says this friend, Byron Williams. "And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed, that blew my mind."
"I do enjoy Glenn Beck," Williams also says, "and the reason why I enjoy that is because . . . no other channel will speak about the same things that he's talking about, and if you go and investigate those things you'll find out that they're true."
Unfortunately for Beck, this satisfied viewer currently resides at the Santa Rita Jail near Oakland and stands accused of a freeway shootout with police. Williams pleaded not guilty to four counts of attempted murder of a police officer. But according to court documents, he said he had been on a mission to kill people at the liberal Tides Foundation, which happens to be a favorite Beck target.
In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Beck for violence committed by his fans, he would do well to stop encouraging extremists. Now, Williams has granted a pair of jailhouse interviews, one with the conservative Examiner.com and one to be published soon by the liberal group Media Matters. These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Beck is dangerous: because his is the one voice in the mass media that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
Milbank later added:
Williams, as you'd expect, is not an entirely reliable witness. At one point he complains that Beck "criticizes all the conspiracy theories," but at other points he hails Beck for embracing them. Still, this part rings true: The prisoner told the Examiner that he already knew about Tides before he heard Beck speak about it in June; rather, "to me it was more of a confirmation of what I already knew," he said.
Exactly. Beck, who has encouraged his followers to hear what he is saying "between the sentences" he actually utters, gave legitimacy to Williams's conspiracy theories.
Click here for an audio preview of Williams' interview with Media Matters.