The 2016 presidential race is still really about President Obama, but many of us seem to have forgotten that. On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur and Mike Dorning wrote a story titled “Obama Urges Social Security Increase in Preview of Campaign Role.” They argue that the president has laid low in this election, and that this week gave an inkling about “his role as campaigner-in-chief for the Democrats ahead of the November election.”
Kapur and Dorning are not wrong, and their piece is very enlightening. But from the beginning of the primaries, this election has been a referendum on President Obama’s failed leadership and, even more painfully, his legacy of racial division.
Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the culture war President Obama has waged against American nationalism, which may be semi-racial, but is even more vaguely Christian and very patriotic. Obama has approached issues in a way that embarrasses Americans who are proud to be Americans, and insults a mainstream traditional American culture.
Perhaps worse for Democrats, Obama’s legacy has also created division within his own party. The junior senator from Illinois ran as a true progressive, the image of “hope and change.” But throughout his presidency, Obama has let down many true believers (despite the impact he has had, terrifying conservatives). Bernie Sanders is the face of young Democrats who feel betrayed by our ideologue-in-chief. Hillary Clinton has become the face of a “progressive who gets things done,” i.e. a slightly more radical version of moderate Democrats like Bill Clinton.
Did you ever wonder why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have the wind at their backs? Two words: Barack Obama. This is an “outsider” election because people are fed up with the status quo. The economy is in bad shape, despite the official Democratic line of denial. Race relations have taken a nosedive under our first black president.
When David Brooks penned his “I Miss Obama” puff piece last year, he actually called the Obama administration “remarkably scandal-free.” So Fast & Furious? The IRS targeting? The VA wait times? The EPA Gold King Mine spill in Colorado? The Syrian “red line” debacle? Benghazi? Remarkably scandal-free indeed.
Nevertheless, both Brooks’ article and the Kapur and Dorning piece do illustrate a particular media trend — a blindness to the powerful impact of over seven years of a disastrous presidency. How does Obama get off the hook for all this? Why do we not see the 2016 election for what it rightly is, a referendum on his failed presidency? Here are three key reasons, from the least effective to the most.
Next Page: How our media manipulator-in-chief avoids the spotlight.
3. President Obama is a master at playing the press.
As Richard Benedetto noted in the Wall Street Journal, it is remarkable that as this incumbent president is leaving office, his failure is not the center of the 2016 campaign. Indeed, despite two-thirds of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track, sluggish job creation, and rising income inequality, Obama’s approval rating is right around 50 percent!
When Obama ran in 2008, he made incumbent President George W. Bush a central issue in the campaign, heaping blame for the country’s problems on the incumbent. Why isn’t Obama suffering the same treatment?
Benedetto explains it simply — “he is a deft manipulator of the media, probably more skillful at it than any president ever.” His “savvy public-relations machine … markets him like a Hollywood celebrity.” They place the president in as many positive situations as possible, pushing photos of Obama “at the final White House Science Fair of his presidency,” or surrounded by adoring women at the opening of a national museum for women’s equality.
Then we get Obama’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday! It’s almost as though he is the American version of the queen herself — a figurehead completely divorced from the scandals of administering a bloated government, and not to be held accountable for them.
Unmentioned in all this positive press are America’s (and the world’s) real problems — economic growth of 0.5 percent in the first quarter of this year, Russian military planes flying by U.S. Navy ships, China expanding its reach in the South China Sea, the Islamic State bombing Baghdad, and the refugee crisis roiling Europe.
The Obama press shop keeps their poster boy as far away from these problems as possible. Instead, they send Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Vice President Joe Biden, or Secretary of State John Kerry. The problem’s aren’t Obama’s, but those of his administration.
Next Page: Why the media accepts it.
2. Many in the press want to parrot Obama’s selling points.
Why did David Brooks say he missed Obama? Why do many outlets hail Obamacare as a success, despite rising premiums and that most famous of broken promises — “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”? What, exactly, is this “Obama recovery” we hear so much about?
Bernie Sanders supporters see through all of this — that’s why they’re parroting “Revolution,” an angrier version of “hope and change.” One of the reasons so many Republicans went for Donald Trump was the sense that he “tells it like it is,” and does so in layman’s terms. Trump does not finesse the numbers to make them seem good — he blatantly lies. Perhaps people prefer that style to Obama’s. In some ways, it really is less false — or at least less slimy.
Americans are tired of media outlets denying the obvious failures of a president, just to serve the same ideology Obama champions. Maybe if we keep saying things like, “Obamacare has extended coverage to XX new Americans,” people will forget that premiums are increasing, jobs are becoming part-time, and doctors are struggling to make the same amount they were before.
Maybe if we keep calling Christian bakers homophobes and repeat the baseless claims that they discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation, people will forget the basic arguments for religious freedom, and support forcing them to bake for gay weddings. Maybe if we deny the terrifying expose of Planned Parenthood videos from the Center for Medical Progress, pro-lifers will learn to just be quiet. Maybe if we attack a pizzeria for refusing to serve a gay wedding, destroy their business and make an example of them, conservatives will learn to keep their mouths shut.
These kind of stories work — but they don’t convince everyone. Their strongest achievement lies in convincing everyday Americans that the media is out to get them. Maybe the everyday Americans are right.
Next Page: The real star of the show.
1. Donald J. Trump, our spectacle-in-chief.
This list would be incomplete without a mention of the real star of the show: real estate mogul turned reality show star turned presidential candidate Donald Trump. His potent mix of outrageous comments, ideological flexibility, and star power has played the media like a fiddle, and in exactly the opposite way from Obama.
Most of the media openly hates Trump, but they cover him because his very name draws attention. After all, what narrative could be more compelling than the story of how someone totally unqualified, bombastic, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, and speaking the language of the common man wins over the American people in the 21st century? How he “destroys” the Republican Party, runs roughshod over the legacy of the “establishment,” and chuckles while doing it?
The Donald’s actions are a tantalizing hook for the media, and we’re all guilty of taking the bait. Trump openly declared that he should skip a Republican debate in January, and even though the ratings for that debate were still good, The Donald dominated discussion about it anyway! When he insulted John McCain’s record as a war hero, he only got more coverage. His Muslim ban drove headlines, receiving reams of negative coverage — but Republicans across the primaries broadly supported it!
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver analyzed media coverage throughout the campaign, and found that three types of stories dominated: Trump vs. the “establishment,” Trump’s poll numbers, and the crazy sayings of The Donald. Each of these types of stories worked in the tycoon’s favor. Many of the articles referred to Trump as “electable,” and the fact that his numbers were strong even while attacking the status quo and saying ridiculous and offensive things just made his brand that much stronger.
If President Obama manipulates the media like John F. Kennedy, Donald Trump does it like Richard Nixon. Obama spreads his positive image through the media, Trump reaches the American people by going around it.
Then again, TV outlets live-stream The Donald’s rallies — a truly unique media coverage strategy that makes sense (with so much violence having occurred at Trump events and so many people there) but gives one candidate a tremendous edge. The New York Times estimated that Trump has received $1.9 billion (that’s BILLION, with a B) in free media coverage, and that was before he clinched the Republican nomination!
Even with the great distraction dominating our news feeds, we should remember that 2016 is about Barack Obama as much as it is about Donald Trump. The first black president should be tied to America’s current problems just as much as George W. Bush was tied to the malaise of 2008. A huge amount of Trump supporters and Sanderistas know this — it’s time for the media to catch up.