The Press and Obama: Where’s that Lovin’ Feeling?
In just a year and a half, the president has squandered the nearly universal support of the mainstream press by his incompetent handling of the BP oil spill.
June 13, 2010 - 12:00 am
It began, as many love affairs do, with infatuation. The MSM fancies itself to be a cynical watchdog, speaking truth to power and capable of toppling the mighty. But when self-described cynics fall in love, they can fall pretty hard.
That’s the way the press fell for Obama, complete with unaccustomed leg thrills and oohing and ahhing over his perfectly creased pants. He was an ultra-liberal dream come true, the one they had been waiting for.
But that was then; this is now. Obama has been president for a bit less than a year and a half, and during that time he’s increasingly treated the press with the callous disregard and outright contempt displayed by those who are so certain they are loved by a worshful underling that they fear neither abandonment nor loss of affection.
As Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor:
…[I]t’s not just the infrequency of hour-long press conferences (six since taking office, including just four during prime-time). Obama has had far fewer short question-and-answer sessions with the press pool than did his two immediate predecessors: only 53 in his first 15 months in office, versus 176 for President Bush and 312 for President Clinton, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University in Towson, Md.
It’s a classic pursuer-distancer dynamic: as the distancer in the love affair plays hard to get, it only increases that person’s perceived desirability in the eyes of the smitten pursuer — for a while, anyway. As Obama continued to distance himself, the press courted his favors, dutifully blamed Bush for bequeathing him “inherited” problems, gave him advice on how to fix things and credit for a bipartisanship he never demonstrated, applauded his big-government goals, admired his pugnacious attacks on the opposition, winked at his hypocrisies as being necessary for strategic reasons, and denied or ignored his lies.
But something has changed lately. Many of Obama’s supporters in the press have become increasingly perturbed as they have come to sense that there is something “off” about the man.
Some of this reaction in the press may be the bubbling up of resentment at having been treated so badly. But there appears to be more than that going on: disappointment and bitterness and even embarrassment are starting to set in, much of it coalescing around Obama’s performance regarding the oil spill. This particular event has presented the left with a highly visible crisis concerning an issue that means a great deal to them — energy and the environment — and on which Obama was supposed to lead in a manner completely different from his predecessor Bush.
Did I say “lead”? That’s exactly what Obama has not done, and the left and the press are shocked and stunned.
It has been especially difficult to pin this disaster on Bush, although there have been half-hearted efforts in that direction (and there’s always bad guy BP to blame). But even the left and Obama’s supporters in the press seem to realize that Obama has come to own the oil spill, and that there has been something really, really wrong with his reaction to it.
That “something” is hard to describe. But it is more character than policy-driven, and more of an absence than a presence. Obama’s supporters were always attracted more to personality traits they saw (or imagined) in Obama than in his actions or his thin resume. And now it is once again personality traits that are the main focus, although this time as a problem: Obama is seen as strangely passive and passionless, tongue-tied and stalled.
How bad an executive and leader Obama has shown himself to be has genuinely surprised the left and the MSM, although neither failing should have been a surprise at all. But as a result the press is now caught in a trap of its own making — one that, strangely enough, Obama foresaw and described.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama made a famous comment likening himself to a blank screen on which people projected their views, and added that therefore, he was bound to ultimately disappoint many of them. He attributed this blankness to his newness on the political scene, but others have attributed it to his seemingly deliberate vagueness; a phenomenon that encouraged people to imagine him to be whatever they wanted.
The press cooperated by projecting mightily, just as Obama intuited they would, envisioning him as a president who would not only right the wrongs of Bush, but do it with style and flair and incisive intelligence and efficiency. And now, if they criticize Obama, they must eat their previous words, as well risk banishment from what little press access they have, and ostracism from the cozy club of the like minded.
But there may be no turning back for the press. Rhetoric and promise can only take a president so far. Events happen, and they must be dealt with.
David Broder of the Washington Post gets it, comparing Obama’s performance during the oil spill not to the obvious analogy, Bush and Katrina, but to an event even more distant in time and space: Carter and the Iran hostage crisis, which Broder calls a “demonstration of monumental futility and incompetence.” As for the oil spill, although Broder refuses to condemn Obama, he admits that now he “owns” the oil spill and must suffer the consequences.
Broder understands what was the final straw for Carter’s popularity and his reputation. The Iranian hostage crisis precipitated and crystallized a public perception of almost endless failure and impotence on the part of the chief executive. That is what Obama risks now, and that is what the left is understandably tense and troubled about.
Broder writes of Carter:
The chart talks demonstrating that we had figured out where the hostages were being held didn’t do Carter a lick of good when voters were aching to see the captives walk into their families’ arms.
And now, as the oil gushes from a pipe near the ocean floor and oozes onto the beaches of the Gulf, and coats the feathers of the birds of the sea, voters are aching to see Obama either work some sort of leadership and live up to a portion of his hype, or at the very least to ache with them. The indisputable fact that he has failed to do either represents a moment of truth for those who believed in him, and did so visibly and in print.