January 20, 2012

When President Obama has a bad day, or more specifically, on days when the economic news has been bad, I get a slew of feedback from conservative readers that go like this:

“See, you liberal media nincompoops, this is all your fault, you treated Obama like a saint when he was running in 2007 and 2008 and you didn’t vet him, investigate him, report on him skeptically. You were so fawning (and adoring of his blackness), you missed that he was a (pick your adjective), radical, socialist, Muslim, inexperienced, dangerous, corrupt, weak Chicago politician with no track record of accomplishment, whose only talent is giving speeches.”

Those e-mails usually employ much harsher language, and some are filled with expletives.

If you watched the Republican debate Thursday night, you heard a muted version of this criticism of Obama from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. (Although Ron Paul almost never mentioned Obama, he criticized the entire system of government instead.)

Deborah Howell, Post ombudsman from 2005 through 2008, said at the end of her tenure that “some of the conservatives’ complaints about a liberal tilt [at The Post] are valid.”

I won’t quibble with her conclusion. I think she was right. I read all of The Post’s lengthier, meatier stories on Obama published from October 2006 through Election Day 2008. That was about 120 stories, and tens of thousands of words, including David Maraniss’s 10,000-word profile about Obama’s Hawaii years, which I liked.

I think there was way too little coverage of his record in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate, for example, with one or two notably good exceptions. But there were hard-hitting stories too, even a very tough one on Michelle Obama’s job at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

And that’s what The Post needs to do in covering his reelection campaign this year: be hard-hitting on his record and provide fresh insight and plenty of context to put the past three rough years into perspective.

More than anything else, Obama campaigned and was elected on the promise of change, of changing politics to something less partisan so that Washington would work better. Did he do that? How hard did he try to work with Republicans? How hard did Republicans try to work with him?

How are his, and Congress’s, choices on the financial crisis and bailouts looking now, three years later? Were banks regulated too much or not enough? Was enough done to ease the mortgage and foreclosure problems? What do nonpartisan economists say about this record?

Obama campaigned on health-care reform, and he got a massive bill passed, most of which will not go into effect until 2013 and beyond. How do experts look at it as implementation gets closer — its potential costs and its benefits?

Obama also campaigned on green technologies, and he used the stimulus bill to tilt government spending toward those objectives. How effective has it been, beyond the Solyndra fiasco? Can we get a better handle on how effective the stimulus bill was, or wasn’t, in creating jobs or keeping economic activity from bottoming out?

In foreign policy, Obama campaigned on getting the Middle East peace process moving again. It hasn’t happened. Why not? Is it his fault, or are changes within Israel and the Middle East more broadly to blame? Has Iran’s drive for nuclear technologies been blunted at all?

Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war, and he did. He campaigned on doing more in Afghanistan; he did that. He got Osama bin Laden. Under Obama, drones may have killed more Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists than anything George W. Bush did in eight years of office. But has that stopped terrorism? Has it worsened relations with Pakistan? Has it worked?

Has the image of the United States abroad gotten, as Obama promised, better than it was under Bush? Has Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring in 2011 been right, including the limited intervention in Libya and the non-intervention in Syria?

How well or badly have his Cabinet secretaries run the government? Has his Race to the Top education initiative worked?

Some of this has been looked at already in Post coverage. But collecting it in one place on the Web would be helpful, as well as looking deeper, now with more hindsight and evidence, at Obama’s record.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.