Obama, the press, and the “bipartisan” trap

I'm not sure how many thousands of questions have been asked over the years at White House press briefings, but I would suggest NBC's Chuck Todd may have recently asked one of the most inane.

I'm not sure how many thousands of questions have been asked over the years at White House press briefings, but I would suggest NBC's Chuck Todd may have recently asked one of the most inane.

The history-making moment unfolded in the White House press room on January 23, when the topic open for questioning was President Obama's proposed economic stimulus package and whether the administration, which was hoping for a bipartisan effort on the legislation, would be disappointed if the bill passed with little Republican support. And that's when Todd asked if Obama would veto his own bill if it didn't garner enough Republican votes.

It's hard to imagine that a reporter for an elite news outlet, operating at the pinnacle of his profession as a White House correspondent, would ever ask that question, would ask if a president would take the step of vetoing his own legislation because not enough politicians from the opposition party had voted in favor of it.

For anyone who understands the extraordinary amount of time, energy, and political capital that goes into passing any piece of legislation, let alone the historic, enormous, and urgently debated stimulus package, the idea that a president would reject legislation simply for theatrics -- simply to prove a PR point about the need for greater bipartisanship -- only highlights how unseriously Chuck Todd seems to take the legislative process. But more important, the entire point of the proposed stimulus package is to jump-start the economy right now. Why on earth would Obama veto his own legislation, thereby delaying the potential recovery?

If nothing else, though, Todd's absurd query helped highlight the unheard-of double standard that's been constructed by the press specifically for the new Democratic president with regard to the pressing issue of bipartisanship. Virtually all the news accounts are stressing the same story: If there's little or no bipartisan support for Obama's stimulus package, then it's Obama fault, and his fault alone. (No surprise, the media narrative echoes the latest GOP talking point, as dutifully pushed by RNC writers like Peggy Noonan.)

A bit ironic, isn't it? While addressing the issue of bipartisanship (i.e. "involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties") the press holds only one party accountable: the Democrats. Apparently, that's how the press now views the issue of bipartisanship -- it's something Democrats must bring to fruition.

In fact, the press has set up Republicans with perhaps the easiest short-term political victory on record. All the GOP has to do is oppose Obama on the stimulus package, and the Beltway media will proclaim Obama the loser. (Heck, they already have.) Does it get any easier than that? Republicans literally do nothing and then get crowned the winner. “Republicans find their voice,” cheered a Politico headline last week for a story about how "[c]ongressional Republicans, who only weeks ago were sheepish about their own electoral failures and cowed by Obama's polish and popularity, are suddenly punching back."

Obviously, Republicans have every right to adopt whatever legislative strategy they want. But when it comes to journalism, why do pundits and reporters suggest that today's lack of bipartisan cooperation reflects poorly on only Obama, or that it highlights a glaring failure on his part?

It's interesting, because for decades, the calculus inside Washington, D.C., newsrooms seemed to be that obstructing a very popular president presented enormous political obstacles for the opposition party. That standing in the way of a president with a popular mandate (in this case, a Democratic president who won Republican-leaning states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia) was politically risky, and in some cases suicidal. Those guidelines, though, have pretty much been put aside for covering Obama.

For instance, if you search the Nexis database, you'll find relatively few mainstream media references to Republicans as “obstructionists” during the past week. In fact, one of the few references I found came from The New York Times, which assured readers, “Republicans, for their part, do not want to be seen as obstructionists of a popular new president in a time of national distress” [emphasis added]. How perfect is that? Republicans don't want to be seen as obstructions, and the press, dutifully, isn't portraying them that way.

What's additionally curious about the press' obsession with bipartisanship and Obama's search for Republican votes is that Obama doesn't really need Republican support to pass his stimulus package. The shrinking band of Republicans in the House is powerless to stop the bill, and if just a couple of Republican senators support it, the bill will pass with 60-plus votes. Yet the often breathless coverage leaves news consumers with the impression that if Obama doesn't win over lots of Republican supporters, his legislative effort, and indeed his entire presidency, could be doomed.

“The [stimulus] bill will be judged a political success not simply if it becomes law, but if it's deemed 'bipartisan' -- with joint ownership that takes a first step toward the new brand of politics Obama has promised,” announced ABC News' Rick Klein. He added that if the bill didn't pass with bipartisan support, “the luster of Obama's leadership” would “fade.”

That's right. Some in the media have already decided that it's irrelevant whether the president's signature legislative initiative passes. Instead, the bill won't be tagged a “success” (by the press, of course) unless it passes with a certain number of opposition party votes, unless it ushers in a completely new era in Washington politics.

The Los Angeles Times seemed to agree, reporting on January 29, "[I]t was clear that [Obama's] efforts so far had not delivered the post-partisan era that he called for in his inauguration address." Meaning, nine days after being inaugurated, Obama still hadn't erased decades' worth of partisan squabbling. That's a reasonable standard, right?

If Republicans simply do not want to cooperate in any meaningful way with Democrats, is there anything Obama can do to change that? No, not really. But according to the press, Obama -- and Obama alone -- is supposed to change that mindset. Actually, according to the L.A. Times, he's supposed to have already changed it.

Traditionally, the standard the press used for judging a new president was: Could he get his initiatives passed? With Obama though, that's morphed into, can he get his initiatives passed in a certain way? Because, apparently, Americans now keep running tallies of C-SPAN roll call votes on their refrigerators to determine the success of a president.

As The Hill announced last week, “If the bill is approved by Congress with minimal GOP support, the partisan nature of how the legislation got to his desk will be a key storyline when Obama signs the measure” [emphasis added]. Who will determine that “key storyline”? The Beltway press corps, of course. Just look at recent examples:

  • “Unless he comes up with a new incentive for Republicans to change their position, Mr Obama's bipartisan aspirations could go up in smoke before he has completed a week in office.” [Financial Times]
  • “The solid Republican opposition, led by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio), raises questions about whether the new era of bipartisanship that Mr. Obama promised during the campaign is truly within reach.” [The Wall Street Journal]
  • “If it gets no Republican votes -- a growing possibility -- the plan could trigger the kind of ugly, divisive partisan fight that Obama has been trying mightily to avoid.” [McClatchy Newspapers]
  • “Republicans are expected to press the president strongly on the stimulus bill, and if the meeting becomes tense, it would quickly remind voters that partisanship in the nation's capital -- despite Obama's vow to reduce it -- is alive and well.” [The Hill]
  • “President Barack Obama's pledge of bipartisan cooperation with Congress will be tested as he tries to fulfill a campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay and establish a new system for prosecuting suspected terrorists. The undertaking is an ambitious one. Fraught with legal complexities, it gives Republicans ample opportunity to score political points if he doesn't get it right.” [Associated Press]

Notice how the AP placed the onus of bipartisanship squarely on Obama. And notice how it's Republicans who stand poised to “score political points” if Obama's pursuit of bipartisanship fails. Talk about stacking the deck. All Republicans have to do is not be bipartisan, and the AP, as well as the rest of the Beltway press, will likely declare them the winners in the showdown; they'll announce that Republicans outmaneuvered and thwarted Obama.

What should be obvious to political journalists is that bipartisanship requires action from both sides. What Obama campaigned on was the idea that he would do his best to change the gridlock in Washington. That he would reach out to Republicans in meaningful ways and lead by example. Did Obama claim that he would change the entrenched culture in the first week? No.

And was his rhetorical hope for bipartisanship somehow unusual or historic? No. Every successful presidential candidate over the past few decades has done the same thing, in part because the idea is very popular among voters. (“Mr. Bush stressed in his inaugural address Saturday that he wanted to set a tone of civility in Washington, and work with Democrats toward common goals,” reported the International Herald Tribune on January 25, 2001.) But with Obama, the press treats his time-honored hope for bipartisanship as being eminently more pressing. For the new Democratic president, obtaining bipartisan agreements somehow defines him.

Indeed, it would be one thing if Obama ran on the idea of reaching out to his opponents and then arrived in Washington and did no such thing. If that were the case, it would certainly be accurate for the press to point out the hypocrisy and label his non-efforts a failure. But clearly, Obama has made all sorts of gestures of goodwill, usually overt, in recent days.

Obama traveled to the home of conservative columnist George Will and spent the evening with a group of GOP-friendly columnists who had vociferously opposed his candidacy. Over the objection of some Democrats, Obama ordered family-planning funds for the low-income to be jettisoned from the stimulus bill after Republicans complained. And Obama traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Republicans, a move that Politico agreed represented “an exceptional gesture for any president.” In fact, according to The Boston Globe, in his first days in office, Obama reached out directly to congressional Republicans more often than the previous Republican president had done eight years earlier. Also, Obama's Cabinet may ultimately feature three Republicans: Robert Gates, Ray LaHood, and Judd Gregg.

How have Republicans responded? They launched an organized effort to embarrass Obama by voting against his Treasury secretary. They aired at least one TV ad campaign attacking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada for supporting the stimulus bill. House leaders publicly called on all members to vote against the bill just hours before Obama politely agreed to travel to Capitol Hill and meet with Republicans. Every GOP House member voted against Obama's stimulus package. And the new RNC chief crowed that the “goose egg” GOP vote on the stimulus bill was "[a]bsolutely beautiful."

If the final stimulus package fails to achieve bipartisan support, the press ought to widen its focus beyond the White House to ask why that happened.