IT WAS early may, and the president was riding high. Politico reported: "Killing Osama bin Laden isn't just an important moment in Barack Obama's presidency-- it's the moment of his presidency, those around Obama say." A New York Times editorial rejoiced that "Mr. Obama's risky and audacious decision to attack the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan has demolished the notion that he cannot make tough decisions." The editorial's title: "The Myth of Mr. Obama's Weakness."
Three months later, Obama looked as weak as any president since Jimmy Carter, or maybe in living memory. Like a leaky balloon, he kept getting smaller. The story was told in the news headlines about an August 11 speech in Holland, Michigan. New York Times: "Obama Urges Voters to Scold Republicans." Associated Press: "Obama: Something Is Wrong With Country's Politics." CNN.com: "President Obama: 'I'm Frustrated.'" Later that day, at a New York fund-raiser, Obama recounted having told audiences on the hustings: "You deserve better than you've been getting out of Washington over the last 2½ months--for that matter, for the last 2½ years." Message: I failed.
In the interim, of course, Obama had lost a major battle with congressional Republicans. To avoid a cash-flow crisis, he needed Congress to increase the limit on federal debt. In return, the GOP demanded spending cuts. For weeks Obama insisted on what he called a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction-- which meant, as he acknowledged on the one occasion when he lapsed into plain English, that any deal would have to include "massive, job-killing tax increases."
When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor indicated that tax hikes were a deal-breaker, the president replied, "Eric, don't call my bluff," and threatened to take his case "to the American people." That he did, in press conference after speech after press conference -- to no avail. He yielded, but only when the alternative was to risk imminent catastrophe. A deal without tax hikes passed the House with bipartisan support August 1, exactly three months after bin Laden's death. Not only was the president ideologically inflexible, but he held fast to a false belief in his own oratorical powers. It was the Obamacare fiasco all over again--only this time, since the GOP controlled the House, without a legislative victory in the end.
But the inadequacy of the spending cuts, combined with the difficulty of the negotiations, led the ratings agency Standard & Poor's to downgrade U.S. debt after the markets closed on Friday, August 5. The following Monday, Obama appeared on television, still pleading the case for a "balanced approach." Lending drama to the otherwise tedious talk, the on-screen ticker showed the stock market plummeting. As the president spoke, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell below 11000 for the first time since November.
How did it come to this? Perhaps Obama is simply stubborn and incapable of learning from his mistakes. But he might also have believed the cheerleading stories he read about himself in the press. Especially rich was a July 15 piece by Politico's Julie Mason, titled "How Obama Rolled the Other Side":
Obama's sudden, punchy ubiquity is part of a larger series of communications moves that portend his winning the argument.…Obama's smart play earlier this month was refusing requests from lawmakers that he go to Capitol Hill for negotiations. Instead, he summoned them to the White House--giving himself the home field advantage and the implied role of disgusted headmaster, gathering the faculty for a tedious but necessary staff meeting.…As before, Obama cast himself as the adult in the room.
When blogger Mickey Kaus tweeted two weeks later that the story was "unprescient" and "embarrassing," Mason hilariously tweeted back: "Embarrassing? It was true when I wrote it. Simmer down."
Another way the press hurt the president by trying to help him was through tendentious reporting of ambiguous survey results. Obama himself, citing a widely reported Gallup poll, claimed that 80 percent of Americans favored his "balanced approach." That turned out to include the 30 percent who said the deficit should be reduced "mostly with spending cuts" and the 7 percent who were undecided or did not answer. By contrast, CNN buried its own poll's finding that 66 percent favored a proposal whereby "Congress would raise the debt ceiling only if a balanced budget amendment were passed by both houses of Congress and substantial spending cuts and caps on future spending were approved." That was the "cut, cap, and balance" approach that all but a handful of House Republicans backed.
If Obama believed the media spin, Republican congressional leaders apparently did not. And even if they did--if they feared losing the battle, à la Newt Gingrich's GOP in 1995-96--a hard-line faction identified with the Tea Party made it impossible for them to give in. Most Tea Party lawmakers rejected the final deal--66 Republican representatives and 19 senators voted "no"--but that meant Democrats were forced to vote for a plan that cut spending without raising taxes. So long as Republicans controlled only one house of Congress, it was about the best the Tea Party could have hoped to do.
In response, the media raged--especially the New York Times, at least three of whose columnists likened Tea Party lawmakers to Islamic terrorists. Thomas Friedman called them the GOP's "Hezbollah faction," while Maureen Dowd preferred "Taliban wing." Joe Nocera wrote: "Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people."
In a later column Nocera said he was sorry, although neither Friedman nor Dowd did. "Nocera's apology reflected well on him and, I believe, on The Times, too," wrote ombudsman Arthur Brisbane. But Brisbane also reported that when asked if Nocera had gone too far, "Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, didn't think so." It was a staggering show of hypocrisy from Rosenthal, whose page routinely delivers pious lectures on the evils of both inflammatory political rhetoric and anti-Muslim bigotry.
"HAS THERE EVER BEEN a campaign as vacuous, as negative, as whiny?" one columnist asked about the president's reelection effort. "Probably so--somewhere back in the mists of the American Presidency." The reference was not to Barack Obama, as the next sentence makes clear: "But it would take a good deal of research to come up with anything like Jimmy Carter's performance in the campaign of 1980."
The author was Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, and he was appalled at Carter's October 1980 claim that "a victory for his opponent could divide this country between black and white, Christian and Jew." Lewis was as liberal as they come, and he yielded to no man in his disdain for Ronald Reagan, whom he described in the same column as "extreme and ignorant."
But liberalism in the age of Andrew Rosenthal, unlike in Lewis's day, lacks the confidence to hold itself to a basic standard of decency. It is a safe bet that Barack Obama's reelection campaign will be every bit as vacuous, negative, and whiny as Jimmy Carter's was--and the Times will only cheer it on and push it to become more so. In the meantime, it may turn out that "those around Obama" were right to tell Politico that bin Laden's killing was "the moment" of his presidency--not only a high point, but the only high point