Sunday, November 21, 2010

Editorial: Fairytales die hard (Ava and C.I.)

More than a small child at bedtime, the press does love their fairytales. And once created, they have a really hard time letting them go. Hard times forced them to face a few bits of reality recently and you could hear it Friday on the second hour of The Diane Rehm Show (NPR) as USA Today's Susan Page filled in for Diane and spoke with David Ignatius (Washington Post), Courtney Kobe (NBC) and Jonathan S. Landay (McClatchy Newspapers) about US President Barack Obama. Excerpt:

Courtney Kobe: This comes right on the heels of a trip where President Obama had a big foreign policy embarrassment in South Korea. So the fact that --

Susan Page: His failure to get a trade deal they'd expected to be able to conclude.

Courtney Kobe: Exactly. And for him to be on the ground there and find out that it had not been approved is an enormous embarrassment and it's one that you don't really see in the White House very often.

[. . .]

David Ignatius: Well he's been pounded, by his own account, he's been pounded by the voters. He's had trouble overseas getting - getting his way with foreign leaders. So you'd have to say, right now, this is a weakened presidency. What do presidents do when they've been weakened? They try to show that they can be strong leaders. He's working as hard as he can now. I think if you take Afghanistan, an issue we were talking about at the beginning, it's hard to see how the president is going -- is going to have success without being more directly involved as commander in chief, without speaking to the country more clearly about what we're doing. There is growing skepticism and doubt in the country about the mission. If the president is going to hold the public with him, he has to communicate more emphatically and directly and I'd say that across the board. I think that -- I know this White House is really thinking, 'How do we learn lessons from our mistakes in the first two years, not just in the - in the mid-term elections, so that we communicate our policy ideas better to the country?"

Susan Page: You know that's something that we've heard about not just, as you say, in foreign policy issues like Afghanistan but on issues like the economy and health care that the communications operations have - have not worked as well as the White House would have hoped. But I guess you then face the question of: Is it the communication or the policy? And I don't know -- what -- what do you think about that, Jonathan?

Jonathan S. Landy: I can be -- my concentration being foreign policy, I can tell you that when the president first got into office, he made this policy speech on Afghanistan, I think it was in May or March, and the international community, the governments that are involved with their troops in Afghanistan said, "Okay, thanks a lot. We understand you're going to rejuvenate policy and you're going to put together a strategy." And then they had to wait another nine months for him to make the next major speech -- that was the December 1st speech last year -- on exactly what that strategy was going to be. And in that intervening period there was a lot of consternation about the fact that they hadn't heard anything more from the administration and that the administration appeared to be moving on to other things without any kind of follow through on Afghanistan.

That's huge. In therapy, it would be hailed as a breakthrough.

Sadly, for many the insight came not from their own observations but from The Televised Confessions of St. Barack. Barack went on CBS 60 Minutes (link has text and video) and owned up to a communications problem. A 'recent' one, you understand. And the press feels they have a little bit of room to tell the truth in -- or some of it.

Truth is, Barack has always been a lousy speaker. We noted it throughout 2008, his robatic manner of speaking, his weird construction of sentences, his eternal pauses. We think we best captured it when we caught a Barack speech back in February of 2009:

We watched Monday in full as Barack uh-uh-uhed and spoke in that robotic manner that allows him to find more unnatural pauses than Estelle Parsons and Kim Stanley combined. "He's our Method president!" we quickly gasped while wishing we could have one president this decade capable of normal speech. If he gets any worse, he'll be Sandy Dennis.

And he has only gotten worse. For example, he explained his problem to CBS as, "Making an argument that people can understand. I think that we haven't always been successful at that." For those who fret over what Barack will do when he leaves the White House, might we suggest portray the Robot in a Lost In Space remake?

Danger, American voters, danger.

As the month began, Mike Allen (Politico) was reporting on one of the dangers -- if not fully getting it -- when Barack agreed he 'mispoke' when he called Republicans "enemies." Not only does a good communicator not do that, a president should never do it. We would have ripped Bully Boy Bush apart if he'd referred to us as "the enemies." And we would have been right to do it. That goes far beyond "charged rhetoric" and the sort of comments that should lead for calls of something more than a radio apology. And it didn't just happen.

Barack is the head of the Democratic Party and, as was demonstrated here October 24th, official, glossy, campaign literature was calling the Republican Party "enemies." A lot of money was spent on those oversize glossies and the Party signed off on them. They never should have. Calling your opponents enemies -- especially in a time of (endless) war -- is tantamount to calling them "traitors." When Ann Coulter made that her fall-back trick, she quickly found media outlets closing their doors to her. But Barack basically got away with it. He got away with it because he'd been allow to get away with all that led up to it including calling out American by name from the Oval Office -- a tactic that was not only offensive but that degraded the presidency itself.

Whatever his feelings towards Rush Limbaugh, et al, he had no place naming them in his remarks. It demonstrated just how tiny the man occupying the Oval Office is.

That was always obvious. It was obvious throughout the campaign and many of us noted the anger and, yes, bitterness Barack exhibited towards Hillary Clinton in particular and women in general, how attacking voters was so frequently his way of 'attempting to reach them.' You can refer to the archives of Hillary Is 44, Uppity Woman, Not Your Sweetie, Puma PAC, Corrente, The Widdershins and The Confluence among others.

Yet somehow the notion of a great communicator took hold. TJ Walker, for example, wants to teach you the secrets to speaking like Barack. Generally speaking, a great communicator does not speak in the stop-start manner that most resembles someone first learning to drive a stick shift. Nor does a great communicator toss his own grandmother, at death's door and the woman who raised him, to the wolves in order to distract from offensive remarks made by his preacher or 'preacher.'

The 60 Minutes story was important because it had video and was a sit-down but Barack had been testing the blame-my-communication excuse for some time. John Dickerson (CBS News) detailed Barack and US Vice President Joe Biden's floating that excuse publicly back in October. But what could have been a passing moment on the evening news became so much more when CBS got the sit-down and heavily advertised it guaranteeing that many of the faithful would see it. When Barack began admitting to a slight problem with communication (sounding like a raging alcoholic in denial), many pushed back from all sides. For example, the GOP offered "Top Ten Democrat Excuses." Conservative Roger L. Simon (Pajamas Media) saw the 'communication problem' as an excuse to cover the rejection of Barack's policies, "What America is recoiling from is not Obama's elitist standoffishness (though that doesn't help), it's his policies. People don't want a health care plan passed so hastily that even the Speaker of the House admits she hasn't read it, a bailout of an inept and bloated automobile company, a stimulus plan that has no discernible positive result, a potential cap-and-trade plan when anthropogenic global warming is turning into a scientific joke, massive unemployment with numbers that were previously unthinkable and, most of all, a national debt so large the federal government and all fifty (not fifty-seven) states may soon be bankrupt."

Simon was disagreeing with centrist Tina Brown (Daily Beast) who offered, "Amazing that Obama, possessed of the bully pulpit of the presidency, is musing here about having forgotten as core a political value as bringing the public along." At Politico, Democrat and professor Andra Gillespie offered, "Given yesterday's election results, a proper response would be for President Obama to announce that he heard the voice of the electorate; in the coming days and weeks, he will present an agenda that frontloads the nation’s priorities on job creation and deficit reduction; and he looks forward to working with Republicans to come up with robust solutions to these problems. Instead, I heard President Obama say that he heard the people’s concerns, but his existing policy framework (with perhaps a little tweaking) will help to address those issues." While the increasingly crazed Theda Skocpol insisted, also at Politico, "This was not a GOP 'tidal wave' -- that is pure hyperbole. Nor was it a Democratic 'debacle'." It was in fact, as Paul Harris and Ewan MacAskill (Guardian) reported, "one of the worst Democratic defeats for 70 years." To quote the late Joan Crawford, "Dear Theda, no one knew she was still alive."

Socialist Matthew Rothschild (The Progressive) avoided using the c-word (communication) though his entire column tackled how Barack was yet again blowing it, "Rather than represent an ideological alternative, he tried to blur the ideological lines. 'None of the challenges we face lend themselves to simple solutions or bumper-sticker slogans,' he said. 'Nor are the answers found in any one particular philosophy or ideology.'" Leftist Dean Baker (Politico) betrayed his own economic understanding when he insisted the remedy was more speechifying, "President Obama should remind the country that we have a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and that the top priority should be getting these people back to work." Apparently Dean has forgotten that in January 2009, right before being sworn in, Barack and his economic gurus were insisting that the stimulus would reduce unemployment to eight percent? As George Stephanopoulos pointed out to Biden in July 2009 (ABC's This Week), "How do you explain that? Because when the president and you all were selling the stimulus package, you predicted at the beginning that, to get this package in place, unemployment will peak at about 8 percent. So, either you misread the economy, or the stimulus package is too slow and to small. "

If Dean Baker has missed it, ownership of problems have never been Barack's strong suit -- which is how a speech to allegedly explain why he sat through Jeremiah Wright's screechings morphed into blame dying granny ("typical White person"). He just refuses the blame, a point Isaiah illustrated in July of this year.

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Kristin Cahill Garcia (Global-Politics) wrongly argues, "it’s time for Obama the A-student to take a backseat to Obama the community organizer." John B. Judis (The New Republic) offered some realities about Barack's community organizing back in 2008:

And so, Obama told Kellman, he had decided to leave community organizing and go to law school. Kellman, who was already thinking of leaving organizing himself, found no reason to argue with him. "Organizing," Kellman tells me, as we sit in a Chicago restaurant down the street from the Catholic church where he now works as a lay minister, "is always a lost cause." Obama, circa late 1987, might or might not have put it quite that strongly. But he had clearly developed serious doubts about the career he was pursuing. Yet, two decades later, to hear Obama the presidential candidate tell it, those years in Chicago as a community organizer shaped the person--and the politician--he has become. Campaigning in Iowa last year, he declared that community organizing was "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School." In a video this spring, Obama stated that community organizing is "something I carry with me when I think about politics today-- obviously at a different level and in a different place, but the same principles still apply." "Barack is not a politician first and foremost," Michelle Obama has said. "He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change." Certainly, Obama has good reason to tout his community organizing experience. After graduating from an Ivy League college, Obama passed up more lucrative jobs to devote three years to organizing low-income African Americans in Chicago. That choice tells us something about his values, and his pride in it is understandable. But his campaign has taken the point a step further, implying that Obama the politician is a direct descendant of Obama the organizer--that he has carried the practices and principles of community organizing into his campaign, and would carry them into the White House as well. This is the version of Obama's biography that most journalists have accepted. In truth, however, if you examine carefully how Obama conducted himself as an organizer and how he has conducted himself as a politician, if you consider what he said about organizing to his fellow organizers, and if you look at the reasons he gave friends and colleagues for abandoning organizing, then a very different picture emerges: that of a disillusioned activist who fashioned his political identity not as an extension of community organizing but as a wholesale rejection of it. Indeed, the most important thing to know about Barack Obama's time as a community organizer in Chicago may not be what he gained from the experience--but rather why, in late 1987, he decided to quit.

As a community organizer, Barack was a failure. That's why his 'resume' counted things like voter registration which aren't really the big goals of community organizing (rent-control, something that would have pissed off the Chicago political machine, is an example of an issue community organizing frequently fights for). He was a failure, he was a flop. And if people could admit that Barack and the press lied about his 'amazing abilities' as a community organizer, they might start to admit the truth about his communication skills.

Barack didn't have a good year in 2010. Last fall, PEW's Andrew Kohut was explaining to Linda Wertheimer (NPR's Morning Edition, link has text and audio) that the latest polling found that the number of Americans stating they didn't know which religion Barack was had "increased from about a third, 34 percent, to 43 percent." This was not a Republican only issue, Kohutwas explained, "Even Democrats are less of the view that he's a Christian -- that declined from 55 to 44 percent -- and more of a view that, hey, I don't know what religion the president is, from 32 to 41 percent over the course of a year." Following the mid-term elections, Tina Brown offered:

As from Wednesday, I'd like the president to stop being so high-minded about avoiding corny symbolic theatrics and start playing to win. The absurd myth, for instance, that he's really a Muslim would be easier to knock out if he strode from the White House every Sunday with a big old Gutenberg Bible and marched his family -- with the first daughters in adorable Sunday best -- to the nearest Episcopalian church. Back in his Chicago Senate days, when he was seeking greater black credibility, Obama was happy enough to attend the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ. What's wrong with a bit of God-fearing symbolism of a different kind now? There was a reason Hillary Clinton showed up at the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfasts when she was trying to network across the aisles. "Worshipping in private," as Obama does, comes off as just another form of annoying elitism.

A great communicator doesn't need Tina Brown to point out the obvious and devise a plan. That Barack does -- and that he's still not followed the suggestion -- goes a long way towards refuting the myth that the Christ-child is a great communicator. The Christ-child? So great was the notion of Barack as the great communicator that when he couldn't deliver in 2008, there was outrage and conspiracy theories offered to explain his dismal April debate performance -- the performance that found him cancelling all future debates with Hillary, the performance that found Beggar Media working overtime to excuse what people had seen with their own eyes. As we pointed out in "TV: The Christ-child fumbles:"

Barack was awful throughout the debate, uanble to handle personal or policy questions, unable to stop pausing repeatedly in the midst of a single sentence, unable to stop using "uh" as a comma, noun and verb. He looked like an incompetent. And the biggest shock for his groupies was learning that, in fact, their Christ-child could not walk on water.

He was never a great communicator. When he began falling back on the excuse that he communicated poorly -- as the mid-terms approached and after -- many in the press began going along with him but insisting this was a new development. It wasn't.

Barack won the 2008 general election not by a landslide -- electoral or popular. Anyone claiming otherwise is confessing to ignorance of presidential electoral history in this country. With his co-horts demonizing Sarah Palin (even those who, like Katha Pollitt, privately confessed Palin was able to communicate) and the economy going into meltdown, with 'jokes' about McCain's age and a press that refused to explore or question Barack, he squeaked across in an election that everyone called for the Democrats back in 2007, long before the nominee was known, for the simple reason that Bully Boy Bush had destroyed the country and 2008 would be a referendum on the Bush policies (for voters it would be, turns out Barack would be a continuation of those policies).

And what the mid-terms really did was remind the United States, specifically the press, what a squeaker Barack's win in 2008 actually was. The honest ones among us might be able to admit he never really came across to most Americans. He was a blank slate upon which dreams and hopes were projected. He was never a full bodied person (as we noted in our 2008, 2009 and 2010 criticism of Saturday Night Live's portrayals of Barack). Today, we're being told that Barack will communicate better now. The future is always hopeful for Barack. Especially if you ignore both the past and reality. August 31, 2008, we covered the press coverage of the DNC convention in Denver and noted this stand-out moment:

For example, US Senator Chuck Schumer was asked about the polling which consistently does not look the way it should for a sure thing Barack win in November. Schumer insisted that it would change as people got to know Barack. Judy Woodruff rightly responded, "But he's been campaigning, with all due respect, for a year and a half."

And he's now been in office for over a year and a half, over-exposed on every medium from 60 Minutes, to The View, to Jay Leno. Yet as the mid-terms and PEW's recent polling on Barack's religious status demonstrate, the American people still don't feel they know him. Though the fairy tale tells you this is a new problem, it is not. And if the press hadn't babied him and carried him, maybe at this late date Americans would know whether or not Barack was capable of standing on his own. Instead, it's just one more thing they're left to wonder about Barack.
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