Greg Sargent, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, has written a remarkable column. It is remarkable most of all for its honesty in explaining what is happening on multiple fronts in the Obama campaign.
In 2008, the mainstream media was in love with Barack Obama. They had a collective thrill running up their legs. John McCain was stunned — he thought the national press was his base. But McCain was foolish to think that the national media would give him a fair shake if he ran against a Democrat in the general election. McCain got the good press only when he ran against George W. Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000. That was an easy call for the media. Bush was a born again Christian, a Bush (privileged), a Texan. He spoke with a southern accent. These are characteristics all worthy of contempt if you write for the New York Times or Washington Post. McCain was a maverick. He supported campaign finance reform. He did not always vote with Republicans in the Senate. So backing him versus Bush was easy.
In 2008, the national media effort on behalf of candidate Obama had several components:
- Make him a more appealing choice (fresher, younger, uncorrupted by politics) than Hillary Clinton.
- Condemn any attempts by Obama critics to examine his largely unexamined history.
- Create an image of Obama as a man above politics, a uniter, a healer, a redeemer, a post-racial candidate (unthreatening).
- Dirty up McCain’s record with innuendo about adultery and colluding with lobbyists, and portray him as a man too old to serve — unsteady, out of touch, a cancer patient.
- Report all attacks by the Obama campaign on McCain as truth.
- Destroy Sarah Palin, making the GOP ticket look too risky to voters, given McCain’s age and health.
The 2012 race is different. Obama has been in office for over three and a half years, and to summarize his economic record in a phrase — he has been a failure.
As Sargent puts it:
Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. But if the Obama camp can persuade swing voters that Romney isn’t the answer to their problems, then perhaps they can neutralize Romney’s natural advantage on the issue — that voters are prepared to grant him the presumption of economic competence as a businessman and generic alternative to disillusionment with Obama.
So how does the press help the Obama campaign neutralize Romney? There are several components to the approach here, but in essence it is to make the news story of each day whatever is the campaign’s attack line on Romney. Change the subject from Obama’s failure to get the economy going and the declining economic numbers as the election approaches.
Sargent’s own newspaper is at the center of the confluence of Obama attack ads and messaging — and news stories on which they feed. Consider the attack on Romney for being an outsourcer of jobs during his years at Bain. He wasn’t, of course, but why let a four-Pinocchios rating for your ad bother you when winning is what matters? A malicious Washington Post attack on Romney appears — and an Obama ad is on the air a few hours later. Could the campaign have known the story was coming? Hmmm.