New York Times Misfires With Critique Of Obama's Arm Twisting

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Even when President Obama successful maneuvers his way through Congressional votes and wins over reluctant Republicans, the press can find a way to paint his efforts as a failure. The New York Times was guilty of that today with a critique that portrayed a recent vote-getting victory as a White House loss.

Stressing what it claimed had been Obama's futile attempt to "twist arms" in the days and weeks before last week high-profile Senate vote on a gun safety bill, the New York Times highlighted an episode involving Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who represented a possible swing vote on the legislation. The Times reported that Begich in March had requested that the administration send its new Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, to Alaska to "discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge."

The White House, according to the Times, granted Begich's request, "to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road." With the White House's commitment in hand though, Begich then promptly voted against the administration on guns. And the Jewell trip is still on. The lesson, the Times stressed, was that Obama "has long struggled to master his relationship with Congress."

The Times' front-page piece today joined a cavalcade of commentary in recent days as pundits and reporters seem to race to explain how Obama blew the gun vote last week. (He's no LBJ!)  And as they raced to downplay, if not completely eliminate, the obstructionist role Republicans played (again) in blocking the bipartisan gun bill.

As Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote on April 21, while blaming Obama entirely for the bill's defeat, the legislative setback stemmed from the president's failure to govern; from his "weakness in using leverage to get what he wants."

The problem with the Times' Begich anecdote that rather than illustrating a White House failure in terms of lobbying to win votes on guns, the trip in question was actually the result of a successful White House negotiation with the state's other senator to achieve a different administration goal. The fact the Times used such a thin example as its primary illustration raises doubts about the validity of the press' ongoing effort to paint the White House gun campaign as an abject failure, and its claim that Obama doesn't know how to govern.

The facts are that yes, Secretary Jewell plans to visit Alaska this spring or summer and it's in connection with a local dispute. But she's visiting as part of an agreement with Senator Lisa Murkowski that helped ensure Jewell's speedy confirmation. Following Jewell's nomination, Murkowski announced she would hold up Jewell's confirmation because of the ongoing dispute over a proposed gravel road through a wildlife refuge. The road would provide access to an all-weather airport in rural Alaska, known as King Cove. Previously, former Secretary Ken Salazar had rejected the proposed road.

In an effort to win Murkowski's support for Jewell's nomination, the administration agreed to take another look at the proposed road and send the confirmed secretary to the site.

From the Associated Press, March 21 [emphasis added]:

Under the agreement, Interior will review an environmental analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that concluded the road could be harmful to geese and other waterfowl that fly through the refuge on their way to warmer climates. Murkowski says the report didn't adequately consider the importance of protecting human health and safety. As part of the agreement, an assistant Interior secretary will visit King Cove and tour the site of the proposed road. If confirmed as Interior secretary, Jewell also will tour the site, most likely this summer, Murkowski said.

That's why Jewell will be visiting Alaska this year. And in fact, it's an example of successful White House lobbying. (i.e. Jewell was confirmed.)

As Oliver Knox at Yahoo News notes today:

A closer look at Jewell's trip also teaches a very different lesson, providing evidence of a president cutting deals with recalcitrant lawmakers to get what he wants. And then keeping his end of the bargain.

As the Times reported, Begich also requested that Jewell make the trip. But the public record shows it was Murkowski's threat to block the secretary's nomination that led to the agreement to have Jewell travel to Alaska. And it was Murkowski's office that first announced the trip.

Today, the Times gave readers the impression that Jewell's trip demonstrated a White House inability to successfully "twist arms" to see their priorities enacted.

That's just not the case.

The New York Times
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