With Friends Like Maureen Dowd, Obama Doesn't Need Enemies

The good news for the White House is that some of President Obama’s critics are a blessing. But the bad news is that some of his supporters are a curse.

Obama’s critics can be so clumsy, petty, and disrespectful as to make the president look good by comparison. Meanwhile, his supporters are so blind to his faults that they hurt him by making excuses and slandering opponents instead of offering constructive criticism.

Witness the health care debate. When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) embarrassed himself by yelling out “you lie!” during a presidential address to Congress, after Obama claimed that health care reform legislation would not provide benefits to illegal immigrants, it was a gift for the White House.

Not only did that lame stunt help solidify the Republicans’ reputation as “the party of no” and play into the narrative of the GOP as the party of intolerance, it also provided the Obama-fawning media with a convenient distraction that allowed it to gloss over more pressing issues in the debate. So instead of talking about the pickle that Obama is in trying to please both liberal and conservative Democrats or asking how the administration can achieve what would seem to be the unattainable trifecta of expanding coverage, keeping costs down, and protecting the coverage that people already have, the media spent several days focused on Wilson’s outburst. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

But there’s another side to that coin. When Obama supporters pounce on Republican missteps and try to deflect any negative criticism by making the GOP the issue, they’re not doing the president any favors. In fact, all they’re doing is glossing over the flaws in Obama’s health care plan and the pitiful way in which he has handled the issue. Listening to Obama’s die-hard supporters, you’d never know that 52 percent of Americans -- according to a recent Associated Press poll -- disapprove of the president’s handling of health care.

Nor are Obama’s supporters doing him much good when they try to portray his critics as defective in some way -- intolerant, racist, mean-spirited, or, in the case of Wilson, just plain rude. Hopefully, Americans see through that.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd chalked up the Wilson outburst to ol’ fashioned bigotry.

“Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber," Dowd wrote. "Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”

Likewise, recently, during one of my regular appearances on National Public Radio, I was disappointed to hear a liberal colleague -- who, not surprisingly, happens to be an unflinching Obama supporter -- insist that critics like Wilson would never have been so disrespectful to a white president. This is a variation of the ridiculous argument that most of the criticism of Obama is coming from people who are uncomfortable with the idea of having a black president. Besides, apparently, my friend has forgotten how disrespectful groups such as Code Pink or MoveOn.org were during the Bush administration toward Alberto Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general. Was that about racism too?

I couldn’t let it go. I pointed out to my liberal colleagues that Obama is currently bleeding support from white voters who were once in his camp. According to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Obama’s job approval rating among white Democrats has dropped 11 points since his 100-day mark in April, and I suggested that one of the reasons for the slide is this irresponsible rhetoric from some of his supporters that his critics are motivated by racism. Keep it up, I warned, and an 11-point drop will grow to 15 points and then 20 points. And then, before you know it, you’re looking at a one-term presidency.

And if that happens, as much they’d like to, Obama’s supporters won’t be able to blame his critics. The GOP is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They’ll have to blame themselves -- for not demanding more of their president and for subjecting him to what his predecessor, in the realm of the education reform, used to call “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”