A lot of liberal bloggers have harshly criticized Politico’s big, much-discussed piece today reporting that “the town is turning on President Obama — and this is very bad news for this White House.” If Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei claim this to be the case, then it’s self evidently true, though it’s unclear that the consequences of this will be quite as bad as VandeAllen suggest they might.
It turns out that “the town,” as a term describing Washington’s political and media elite, actually has a history that goes back to elite Washington’s disdain for Bill Clinton. That history is well explained here by Digby, who ultimately coined the phrase “the Village” as a catch-all description of Washington’s insular ways.
In that context, I’d argue that the Politico piece is actually quite useful, in the sense that it’s very candid about how certain aspects of “the town” actually work. This nugget from the VandeAllen piece is particularly instructive:
Obama’s aloof mien and holier-than-thou rhetoric have left him with little reservoir of good will, even among Democrats. And the press, after years of being accused of being soft on Obama while being berated by West Wing aides on matters big and small, now has every incentive to be as ruthless as can be.
We should take this seriously. As Ed Kilgore puts it: “make no mistake: this is a declaration of war by elements of the Beltway Media who are determined to show us all they still have the power to `bring down a president,’ as they arrogantly used to say about Watergate.”
The claim that the press now has “every incentive” to be “ruthless” is fascinating, and worth unpacking. Why, exactly, is it more in reporters’ interests to be more aggressive in its coverage of Obama right now than it was before? Easy. Now that “the town” has turned on Obama, being as aggressive as possible in going after him will lead to accolades among media colleagues and ingratiate you with sources, including even Congressional Democrats who will presumably now distance themselves from the White House, in the knowledge that “the town” has decided the President is in political trouble. It’s hard to interpret this any other way. This is not a particularly flattering description of the proper role of the press, and few reporters would cop to it or accept it. But there’s no reason to doubt VandeAllen’s candid suggestion that this is how parts of the Beltway media genuinely function.
The other important thing here is what this says about scandal coverage. The Politico piece says this:
This is a dangerous — albeit familiar — place for a second-term president. Once the dogs are released, they bark, they bite and it takes a very long time to calm them down. Bill Clinton got hit early and often, and George W. Bush never really recovered from it…The long-term danger is that the political system and the public start to view the president, his motives and ideas through a more skeptical lens. The short-term danger is the press races for new details, new scandals, new expressions of indignity with each passing day.
Again, points for candor. The whole “second term curse” narrative is mostly a media construct, but it’s actually a self-perpetuating one. The danger is that once the “second term curse” idea becomes the story, the actual factual makeup of any given ongoing “scandal” becomes less and less relevant, while the focus intensifies on the White House’s handling of it. The current scandals vary in validity. As Kevin Drum puts it:
Benghazi is still the nothingburger it’s always been, and everyone knows it; the DOJ episode is a policy debate, not a scandal; and it’s vanishingly unlikely that Obama had even the most tenuous connection to the IRS targeting of tea party groups, the only genuine scandal in the bunch.
But all of this gets caught up in a big “White House on defensive” narrative. And as a result, it is not in anyone’s “incentive,” as VandeAllen put it, to separate the scandal wheat from the chaff or focus on whether this or that new emerging detail is actually scandalous. Indeed, the “second term curse” and “White House on defense” storyline becomes the excuse for not doing this. It’s good to have this dynamic nailed down – by VandeAllen in particular.