President Obama?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008 10:26 AM

The network maps are bathed in blue, the pundits contemplating a landslide, the conservative columnists preparing for the indignities of an Obama administration.

With the numbers breaking Barack Obama's way, it's hardly surprising that poll-driven journalists are suggesting, insinuating or flat-out forecasting a Democratic victory. But could they affect the outcome? And what if they turn out to be wrong about John McCain being toast?

"One piece of press bias is they don't like losers," says CBS correspondent Jeff Greenfield. "When the whiff of defeat surrounds a campaign, the press picks up on it the way sharks smell blood in the water, and then it becomes a feedback loop."

NBC's political map has Obama at 264 electoral votes, just short of the required 270. Political director Chuck Todd told viewers that Obama is "one state away" and he doesn't see how McCain can catch up.

"I think we have to be responsible," says Todd, adding that he won't hesitate to put Obama over 270 if his analysis supports it. "It'd be worse if somehow we were withholding it. That's crazy, too. It looks like you're trying to create drama."

CNN projected Obama leading in states with 277 electoral votes last week, based on a new poll giving the freshman senator a 10-point lead in Virginia. "This is only a snapshot of where the individual states are," says political director Sam Feist. "We're not suggesting that Barack Obama has won this election." ABC's George Stephanopoulos says Obama would win more than 300 electoral votes if the election were held now.

But polls change, as many journalists were reminded when they wrongly predicted that Obama would beat Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. McCain accused the national media last week of having "written us off," as they did so embarrassingly last year.

"It's obvious the media have a preferred candidate in the race," says McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb. "It's obvious the media are eager to seal the fate of John McCain." At the same time, he says, "we know we have some ground to make up. We don't want our people to be demoralized looking at poll numbers that are rather erratic and that we don't think are reliable."

Obama, for his part, warned against cockiness last week when "the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked."

"I don't think it's particularly helpful," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "And the people who are making these pronouncements are ignoring recent history that have shown very close results. This is a closely divided electorate, and we expect that nationally and in battleground states this race is going to go down to the wire."

News stories have hung their handicapping on partisans. McCain "failed to allay Republican concerns that the presidential race may be slipping beyond his grasp," says the Los Angeles Times. Republican leaders said "they were worried Mr. McCain was heading for defeat," says the New York Times. "Democratic strategists are now optimistic that the ongoing crisis could lead to a landslide Obama victory," says Politico. And Newsweek has the senator from Illinois on the cover yet again today, with the headline "How a President Obama would govern a center-right country." Not much doubt there.

Opinion writers are even bolder in flouting Yogi Berra's dictum that it ain't over till it's over. "The Democrats are on the verge of a strange victory," writes National Review editor Rich Lowry. "If Obama is elected, they will arguably have won the most left-wing government in American history."

Salon's Walter Shapiro sees "McCain's prospects dwindling to a point where even Kansas and Oklahoma may soon be dubbed 'swing states.' " And Tucker Carlson wrote on the Daily Beast blog: "It's over. Obama won."

If some journalists are excited by the prospect of the first African American president, many are also citing racial attitudes as a reason the polls might be overstating Obama's support. That enables them to hedge their bets a bit.

Any analysis, of course, must be grounded in reality. McCain, tied to the most unpopular president in a generation, is being dragged down by a massive financial crisis and record-breaking public sentiment that the country is on the wrong track. His choice of Sarah Palin is proving increasingly controversial. The number of self-identified Democrats now exceeds that of those who call themselves Republicans. And McCain is defending traditionally red states while Obama is trying to pick off several that voted for President Bush four years ago.

McCain has also been hurt by conservative commentators -- including David Brooks, George Will, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan and Christopher Buckley -- who have chastised the Arizonan's campaign and the choice of Palin. (Buckley, in fact, lost his National Review column last week for the heresy of backing Obama.) The saturation coverage of Colin Powell's "Meet the Press" endorsement of Obama yesterday -- his remarks outside the NBC studio carried live on cable, his words leading many newspaper Web sites -- added weight to the media verdict that Obama has sealed the deal.

"You've got people on the right side of the political equation saying the McCain campaign's screwed up and he's picked a running mate who is unqualified," Greenfield says. That adds to the impression of a sinking ship.

But the theater-criticism aspect of modern journalism is a factor as well. After McCain's most aggressive performance in the final debate, much of the media focus was not on his specific attacks but whether he looked angry and exasperated while Obama stayed calm and collected. Is criticism only valid if it makes your opponent whine or tear up?

McCain's invocation of Joe the Plumber to make the case against Obama's tax policies dissolved in a series of dispatches about how Joe Wurzelbacher is not a licensed plumber, is not in the high-income bracket targeted by Obama and, what's more, his first name isn't Joe. And McCain is never going to draw the kind of attention for his mortgage bailout plan that he did for telling David Letterman he "screwed up" by canceling an earlier appearance, or that Palin did in appearing with Tina Fey on Saturday night.

For all the complaints that the media swoon over Obama -- he has garnered editorial endorsements in recent days from The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times -- journalists are ultimately driven by electoral math. If McCain were to make a comeback in the almighty polls, the narrative would abruptly change. If the numbers don't move, the chatter about an Obama presidency will grow louder, perhaps drowning out the campaign's final days.

Back in Action

Fox News is expected to announce today the hiring of a new contributor, a veteran national security correspondent who has shared a Pulitzer Prize.

Her name is Judith Miller, and she is nothing if not controversial. Miller left the New York Times in 2005 after testifying in the trial of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby that he had leaked her information about a CIA operative. Miller's conduct in the case, which led to her serving 85 days in jail for initially refusing to testify, drew rebukes from the Times executive editor and some of her colleagues.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Miller reported stories on the search for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be untrue, some of which were cited in a Times editor's note acknowledging the flawed coverage. Miller, now with the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote when she left the paper that she had "become a lightning rod for public fury over the intelligence failures that helped lead our country to war."

Miller will be an on-air analyst and write for Fox's Web site. "She has a very impressive résumé," says Senior Vice President John Moody. "We've all had stories that didn't come out exactly as we had hoped. It's certainly something she's going to be associated with for all time, and there's not much anyone can do about that, but we want to make use of the tremendous expertise she brings on a lot of other issues. . . . She has explained herself and she has nothing to apologize for."

Moving right along. . . As someone who almost always says the media overplay endorsements, I wonder if that's the case again with the Powell nod.

NYT: "Another dispiriting setback to Republicans, particularly since Mr. Powell is a longtime friend of Mr. McCain's and even donated to his campaign."

Chicago Tribune: "A much anticipated endorsement from a Republican with impressive foreign policy credentials."

Boston Globe: "Because Powell -- a longtime Republican and President Bush's former secretary of state -- is a widely respected figure, analysts said his warm praise for Obama could sway undecided independents and moderate Republicans, two constituencies McCain needs."

Washington Times: "Sen. Barack Obama announced that he had raised more than $150 million for his campaign in September, collected the endorsement of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Sunday and continued to see the kinds of signals that suggest he is positioned for a big night on Nov. 4."

Mike Murphy, who helped run McCain's 2000 campaign, says in Time:

"I am not normally of the view that endorsements mean much in presidential politics. But Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama today is a real sledgehammer blow to the already staggering McCain campaign. Not just because a Powell endorsement shores up Obama's shaky foreign policy bona fides, but even more because of the content of Powell's remarks on Meet the Press. The general showed he still knows how to launch a brutal offense. Powell's remarks were an across the board indictment of the McCain campaign. He threw a subtly delivered but perfectly targeted series of chops at each of the . . . major fractures of the shaky McCain campaign; the Palin choice, the dark tone of the campaign, the Helter Skelter antics at the onset of the economic crisis."

Marc Ambinder: "It deprives McCain of a day to win the news cycle. There are sixteen left . . . McCain would be a maverick, Powell says, but America needs a transformation figure . . .

"Powell is a culturally individuated African American hero; to the extent that there remain white voters who have inchoate worries about Obama's race, it helps to have him associated with a man whose race they've already gotten over."

New Republic's Michael Crowley: "This was not a mere nod to Obama but rather an indictment of John McCain, Sarah Palin, and the state of the GOP . . .

"I wonder if he sees this in any way as a moment of both revenge and redemption. Powell trashed one of the most sterling brands in American politics with his pivotal 2003 UN speech touting evidence of Iraqi WMD that was later discredited. You can debate whether Powell should have known better, but it's clear that he feels resentful towards the Bush administration. Breaking with the GOP may have been, in part, a way of paying back the neocons who sucked him into a conflict that defied the core principles of the military doctrine that bears Powell's name."

She may not be Colin Powell, but onetime Reagan/Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan leaves the governor of Alaska in the dust:

"We have seen Mrs. Palin on the national stage for seven weeks now, and there is little sign that she has the tools, the equipment, the knowledge or the philosophical grounding one hopes for, and expects, in a holder of high office. She is a person of great ambition, but the question remains: What is the purpose of the ambition? She wants to rise, but what for? . . .

"It's unclear whether she is Bushian or Reaganite. She doesn't think aloud. She just . . . says things.

"Her supporters accuse her critics of snobbery: Maybe she's not a big 'egghead' but she has brilliant instincts and inner toughness. But what instincts? 'I'm Joe Six-Pack'? She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation -- 'palling around with terrorists.' If the Ayers case is a serious issue, treat it seriously. She is not as thoughtful or persuasive as Joe the Plumber . . .

"No news conferences? Interviews now only with friendly journalists? You can't be president or vice president and govern in that style, as a sequestered figure. This has been Mr. Bush's style the past few years, and see where it got us."

Those McCain robocalls, hitting Obama not just on Ayers but on his supposedly extreme position on abortion, prompts Steve Benen to complain in the Washington Monthly that "making ugly attacks, below the radar, with automated calls is fundamentally gutless. After watching the campaign unfold over the last several months, many of us have come to expect dishonesty and dishonor from McCain, but this is the most meaningful example of cowardice we've seen this year.

"Worse, McCain knows this. He hated this kind of campaigning when it was used against him eight years ago."

For all the media focus on Joe the Plumber owing back taxes, L.A. blogger Patterico observes: "I almost forgot to mention: Martin Nesbitt, the treasurer of Obama's campaign, has tax liens. So do his companies.

"You'd think that matters more than the tax liens of Joe the Plumber, wouldn't you? But good luck finding a Big Media story about Nesbitt's liens."

But Paul Krugman has a different take: "When it turned out that the right's new icon had a few issues, like not being licensed and comparing Mr. Obama to Sammy Davis Jr., conservatives played victim: see how much those snooty elitists hate the common man?"

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