Carping About Competence

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009 9:52 AM

Barack Obama might be getting whiplash these days.

First he was blamed for the plunging stock market, until there was a slight rebound. Then he was roundly criticized for trying to do too much at once, a theme that was reprised Sunday on "Meet the Press."

And now the august chroniclers of the MSM are raising questions about whether our new president knows what the hell he's doing.

The significance here is that these aren't ardent conservatives who might be expected to beat up on a Democratic president. These are, mostly, middle-of-the-road types who are starting to raise questions about Obama's performance.

The president is pushing a big agenda that is, of course, fair game. But it seems to me he's stuck in an uncomfortable limbo. He inherited huge problems that forced him to start drafting economic legislation even before taking the oath. He rammed through a huge stimulus plan in record time and unveiled a new bank bailout plan. But even under the best of circumstances, these efforts are going to take time to show results. In the meantime, the daily drumbeat in the punditocracy is that Obama, who promised so much, hasn't made much headway.

This much, I think, is fair: You have to learn how to be president. That was true when JFK blundered into the Bay of Pigs and it's true today.

There is no better barometer than David Broder declaring that Obama's honeymoon is over, and that some of his policies "are bafflingly complex, and all of them are untested."

A harsher assessment comes from Michael Goodwin in New York's Daily News:

"Yes, it's early, but an eerily familiar feeling is spreading across party lines and seeping into the national conversation. It's a nagging doubt about the competency of the White House. . . .

"Polls show that most people like Obama, but they increasingly don't like his policies . . .

"Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the doubts about Obama himself. His famous eloquence is wearing thin through daily exposure and because his actions are often disconnected from his words. His lack of administrative experience is showing."

Bill Bennett has compiled a list "of media and political moderates," some of them past Obama supporters, who have turned critical. These include Newsweek's Robert Samuelson (who called Obama "the great pretender" over his budget) and Howard Fineman, who says "Obama may be mistaking motion for progress."

Hot Air's Ed Morrissey pounds the same theme: "Obama is in over his head, and so are his closest aides, such as Geithner, Hillary, and the entire team. The best we can hope is that on-the-job training can work quickly."

But former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon blows the whistle on the Beltway's hit-job mentality:

"Off with their heads! Or fire them, anyway. It's the latest craze in Washington and among the political and media elite.

"If you don't like someone's policies, jump right past any legitimate critique and call for them to be fired. Doesn't matter that they've been in their jobs less than a few months. Doesn't matter that they haven't done anything wrong, haven't abused their offices, no acts of malfeasance, no criminal, moral, or ethical transgressions. They should simply be fired for, um, doing their jobs, but not doing them precisely in the manner or fashion desired by the newly appointed prosecutors.

"We've become a nation of hair-trigger assassins. And the media is largely to blame for elevating the firing squads to a level of prominence and respectability."

In the crosshairs, McKinnon says in bipartisan fashion: Tim Geithner and Michael Steele.

Obama, meanwhile, uses the words "recklessness" and "greed" in doing what his lead-footed Treasury Department should have tried to do in the first place:

"President Obama on Monday vowed to try to stop the faltering insurance giant American International Group from paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives," the NYT reports, "as the administration scrambled to avert a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street that could complicate Mr. Obama's economic recovery agenda."

In the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes doesn't like what Obama is doing -- no surprise there -- but dismisses the notion that he should slow down:

"President Obama must be irked. The media and other Obama allies like Warren Buffett are on his case for the first time, insisting he's in too big a hurry to enact his entire domestic agenda. Obama should slow down, they say. He should prioritize. He should focus on reviving the economy and nothing else, and leave other issues--health care, energy, education--for later. The president has spurned this advice.

"Obama is right. His agenda is grandiose, but his strategy for achieving it makes sense. Since he has a fair chance of getting nearly everything he wants, why not go for it now? The president and his aides believe any new administration in similar circumstances would do the same. Right again. Proceeding prudently, taking up issues one at a time, would reduce the odds of success. For a new president, later is harder . . .

"The president, contrary to his reputation as the smartest guy in town, doesn't seem to realize how important his own strategy really is. He acts as though he's not subject to the normal rules of politics and thus, for him, success is inevitable. It's not. The rules do apply and have, in fact, begun to affect him adversely. He needs to make haste."

In a New Republic profile of Larry Summers, Noam Scheiber says the economic adviser made nice with him -- and what's up with that?

"The contrast with Summers's graceless image that was most striking. On some level what I wanted from Summers was reassurance about the economy, and he seemed happy to oblige . . .

"When I wondered what steps he would take if there were no checks on his decision-making, Summers was deferential. 'I think the right approach here is the president's approach,' he cooed.

"I'd gotten what I'd hoped for, in other words. Not a battering-ram but a warm, avuncular presence. Others have noticed this change, too. 'Mindful of his reputation as an intellectual bulldozer, Mr. Summers is working hard to rein himself in,' the Times followed-up in February. Newsweek recently found 'signs that Summers really is learning to play well with others.' And yet, once our interview was over, I felt strangely unfulfilled. Like I'd shown up for a deep- tissue massage, only to be rubbed down gently with pleasant-smelling oils. Without the pain and abrasiveness, how do you know it's really working?

"At which point I began to worry: What if we in the press have gotten it wrong? Collegiality is all well and good. But, in this moment of global crisis, when indecision could be disastrous and a wrong decision even worse, shouldn't we want to unleash our hard-charging geniuses and get out of their way? Maybe the issue isn't whether Summers plays well with others, but whether Obama's economic effort should be led by a an ensemble cast or a single virtuoso performer."

With the Obamans shifting their rhetoric from the economy is a disaster to the fundamentals are sound, Atlantic's Marc Ambinder offers a reality check:

"I'm not one to traffic in arguments that Republicans would get excoriated for saying things that Democrats are allowed to say and vice-versa, but there are times when playing the language game can be illuminating. Isn't it true that, if there was such a thing as a prominent Republican these days, said Republican pronounced as sound the fundamentals of the economy and commented that things didn't seem to be as bad as they appeared . . . isn't it true that that Republican would be pilloried? (Maybe even by the Republican's own party-mates?)

"Maybe there's some truth to the New Administration Happy Talk (NAHT), but it's a little jarring. To be fair, the NAHT is always accompanied by caveats -- the recovery hasn't begun, there are still major problems, things might get worse before they get better. Or -- maybe the administration really believes that the six-month Bush-Obama monetary and fiscal policy interventions haven't just kept things from getting worse . . . they've made things demonstratively, empirically, better."

War Fatigue

Afghanistan was always the "good" war, compared with Iraq, since it was a country that had harbored al-Qaeda. But now:

"American support for the war in Afghanistan has ebbed to a new low, as attacks on U.S. troops and their allies have hit record levels and commanders are pleading for reinforcements, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows.

"In the poll taken Saturday and Sunday, 42% of respondents said the United States made 'a mistake' in sending military forces to Afghanistan, up from 30% in February."

Just in time for Obama's escalation there.

Secret Weapon

Via the New York Post:

"Jon Stewart, the scourge of Wall Street and bane of CNBC, may have had a secret weapon in his corner to help him prep for his grudge match with 'Mad Money' host, Jim Cramer -- his older brother.

"As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, Stewart's brother, Larry Leibowitz, is head of US Markets & Global Technology at NYSE Euronext. (Stewart's given surname is also 'Leibowitz,' but he famously told '60 Minutes' that he changed it to 'Stewart' because Leibowitz 'sounded too Hollywood')."

So that's how he knew about 35-to-1 bank leveraging.

Is This Item Too Long?

A rumination by Time's Michael Scherer on Dick Cheney's CNN interview Sunday and the sausage-slicing of news:

"I came across a Politico story by their ultra-productive reporter Mike Allen, titled 'Cheney: U.S. "succeeded" in Iraq.' A few more clicks, and I discovered that Allen had in fact written two other stories on the Cheney interview. One was called 'Cheney: Obama wants 'massive expansion,' which included the comments about success in Iraq, in the form of a transcript. Another was called 'Cheney says Obama endangers U.S.,' which focused on another part of the speech. Another Politico reporter, Carrie Budoff Brown, wrote six other short pieces on the Cheney interview in a blog called Politico Live. One was called, 'Cheney: Hill is no Crocker.' Another was called, 'Cheney: We left Scooter 'hanging in the wind.' ' Each story was, like Allen's three, short and focused on a single quote. In other words, a Politico reader who wanted to know what happened during the Cheney interview on CNN would have to read as many as nine different stories on the site.

"What struck me about all this was not just that Politico had created a hassle for me, the reader. It was that they were doing news online smarter than the rest of the old-school organs of print journalism--from the New York Times to TIME magazine--and that Politico's insights about how the web works could have ill effects for the future of my profession, political journalism.

"Here's why: The Internet has changed the incentives for news producers. Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event like Cheney's provocative interview on CNN . . . In the Internet-age, by contrast, what matters is not the container, but the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information. That nugget is not packaged (since the newspapers, magazine, broadcast television structure do not really apply online), but rather sent out into the ether, seeking out links, search engine ranking and as many hits as possible. A click is a click, after all, whether it's to a paragraph-length blog post or a 2,000 word magazine piece. News, in other words, is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds, of the sort provided by the Huffington Post, The Page, and The Drudge Report. Each quote gets its own headline. Context and analysis are minimized for space. The reader, choosing her own adventure as she clicks, creates her own narrative of the world, one that is largely dependent on the aggregators she employs . . .

"That means this new Twitter-sized view of political news will increasingly dominate."

I'll have more on this startling development on my Twitter page. (Joke.)

Back of the Hand

No wonder the MSM are turning on the president. Look at this insult, reported by Politico:

"No offense intended, says the Obama White House. None taken, say the esteemed leaders of the Gridiron Club.

"Still, in Washington, a slap does not have to be officially labeled as such for its sound to echo -- and its sting to be felt. And make no mistake: President Barack Obama deciding that he is too busy to attend the Gridiron's annual banquet later this month is a slap. He's the first president since Grover Cleveland to skip the white-tie-and-tails affair in his first year in office . . .

"Some Gridiron veterans make clear they don't understand. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page said, 'People feel uncommonly saddened, miffed and burned.' "

Now This Is Sad

An Andrew Sullivan reader relates this tale of woe:

"I left a job in journalism last year to focus on my own personal writing. As 2008 wore on, I found it harder and harder to find work until finally the money completely dried up. My wife's salary is small but just enough to keep us chugging along (as we have no kids), but it certainly led to plenty of strain between us. In the fall, I accepted an offer to go and work for the Obama campaign in a state halfway across the country. While I was away, my wife cheated on me. I found out at Christmastime, which made an already spartan holiday even more dreary.

"Normally, that's the sort of indiscretion that would end a marriage, but in this case, I could not afford to move out, and it ended up being cheaper to pay for counseling through her health insurance so we could at least live with each other."

Recession Watch

"The Seattle Post-Intelligencer will roll off the presses for the last time Tuesday, ending a 146-year run.

"The Hearst Corp. announced Monday that it would stop publishing the newspaper, Seattle's oldest business, and cease delivery to more than 117,600 weekday readers."

The P-I is boasting about becoming a Web site, but the reality is only 20 to 25 members of the 167-person staff will be staying on.

New to Twitter

Roland Hedley, Doonesbury's buffoonishly aggressive correspondent, is sharing his small thoughts:

"Been working on my blog. Just posted an item reporting that I was about to tweet. Really good comments so far."

"Have now dated 2 Ana Marie Cox impostors in a row. Anyone got hard AMC 411 (last 4 SS# digits, identifying marks) so don't get burned again?"

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