A Love-Hate Relationship?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009 8:25 AM

It's not enough that he's trying to impose socialism, run General Motors, refused to call America a Christian nation and supposedly bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia, as recent right-wing chatter would have it.

Now conservatives are tagging President Obama with another sin. He is, they say, a tremendously polarizing figure.

This is based on a poll, which we'll get to in a second, but first let's apply the common-sense test.

Does it seem to you that Barack Obama, who constantly talks about moving beyond the petty partisan battles of the past, inspires vitriol among most of his critics? Nope, me either.

Think about the way many conservatives detested Bill Clinton. Think about the way many liberals despised George W. Bush. Is Obama even close to being in that zone? Don't most of the folks who disagree with his policies view him as a well-meaning guy?

If he crashes the economy, ruins GM and Iraq winds up in flames, maybe the animosity level will rise. But now, after three months?

This is, after all, a president who invites Republicans over for such events as a Super Bowl party. Who named Republicans to run the Pentagon and Transportation Department, and tried to hand the Commerce Department to Judd Gregg. Who ticked off his liberal base by having Rick Warren speak at his inauguration. Does that fit the definition of polarizing?

Nonetheless, the chorus on the right is growing louder, now led by Karl Rove in the WSJ:

"The Pew Research Center reported last week that President Barack Obama 'has the most polarized early job approval of any president' since surveys began tracking this 40 years ago. The gap between Mr. Obama's approval rating among Democrats (88%) and Republicans (27%) is 61 points. This 'approval gap' is 10 points bigger than George W. Bush's at this point in his presidency, despite Mr. Bush winning a bitterly contested election . . .

"His campaign promised post-partisanship, but since taking office Mr. Obama has frozen Republicans out of the deliberative process, and his response to their suggestions has been a brusque dismissal that 'I won.' . . .

"Mr. Obama has hastened the decline of Republican support with petty attacks on his critics and predecessor. For a person who promised hope and civility in politics, Mr. Obama has shown a borderline obsessiveness in blaming Mr. Bush. Starting with his inaugural address and continuing through this week's overseas trip, the new president's jabs at Mr. Bush have been unceasing, unfair and unhelpful. They have also diminished Mr. Obama by showing him to be another conventional politician. Rather than ending 'the blame game,' he is personifying it . . .

"The most recent Fox News poll (taken March 31 to April 1) found that Mr. Obama's job approval among independents has fallen to 52%, down nine points from the start of March and down 12 points from late January . . . No president in the past 40 years has done more to polarize America so much, so quickly."

Is stating your disagreements with your predecessor, especially on profound issues such as Iraq and torture, "petty" and "obsessive"?

Former Bush speechwriter turned WP columnist Michael Gerson makes the same argument:

"Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times? Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush?

"No, that honor belongs to Barack Obama . . . Obama has been a unifier, of sorts. He has united Democrats and united Republicans -- against each other."

And ex-Bushie Pete Wehner carries the message in Commentary: "So it turns out Mr. Obama is the most polarizing president of the past four decades."

Lefty bloggers find all this amusing. Washington Monthly's Steve Benen says "the loyal Bushies' newfound fascination with the 'polarizing' talking point is wildly misleading. Second, for Karl Rove to argue that Bush, far more than Obama, worked to bring people together is simply hilarious.

"You don't suppose Rove has identified some of his (and Bush's) biggest faults, and is simply projecting them on to the Obama White House, do you?"

At Who Runs Gov, Greg Sargent reports that Pew staffer Michael Dimock attributes the numbers to the "uncommonly enthusiastic reaction to Obama by members of his own party" and "the recent tendency of Republicans to be less charitable towards new presidents than Dems have been.

"In contrast to the 27% of GOPers approving of Obama now, more than a third of Dems (36%) approved of George W. Bush at a comparable time in 2001. Before that, only 26% of Republicans approved of Bill Clinton at the same time in his presidency, while 41% of Dems approved of both George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan at comparable times."

In another Bush-versus-Obama scenario, Fox's Bill Sammon takes on the veep:

"Aides to former President George W. Bush are challenging the veracity of Vice President Joe Biden's claim this week of having privately castigated Bush, who does not remember the incident or an earlier episode in which Biden claims to have similarly rebuked Bush.

"Biden spokesman Jay Carney declined to specify the dates of his boss's purported Oval Office scoldings of Bush. Nor would he provide witnesses or notes to corroborate the episodes. 'The vice president stands by his remarks,' Carney told Fox News without elaboration.

"Those remarks include a shot that Biden took at Bush on Tuesday. 'I remember President Bush saying to me one time in the Oval Office,' Biden told CNN, 'Well, Joe,' he said, 'I'm a leader.' And I said: 'Mr. President, turn and around look behind you. No one is following.'

"That exchange never took place, according to numerous Bush aides who also dispute a similar assertion by Biden in 2004, when the former senator from Delaware told scores of Democratic colleagues that he had challenged Bush's moral certitude about the Iraq war during a private meeting in the Oval Office. Two years later, Biden repeated his story about dressing down the president."

Too bad there aren't White House tapes to resolve this.

Capitalism's Last Gasp?

Another survey setting off buzz meters is examined by Atlantic's Chris Good. The Rasmussen poll says "53 percent of Americans prefer capitalism, 20 percent prefer socialism, and 27 percent say they're not sure. The exact question was: 'Which is a better system--capitalism or socialism?'

"Compare that to a Dec. 29 poll on similar concepts, cast in different terms, in which 70 percent said a 'free market economy' is better than 'an economy managed by the government' (which collected 15 percent--the same as 'unsure').

"Rasmussen points out that 'free market' may simply elicit more favorable responses than 'capitalism.' That could be, but it's also worth noting that a lot has happened between Dec. 29 and now. Most importantly, the nation has experienced a political dispute over whether President Obama's economic fixes amount to 'socialism' -- a dispute played out routinely on cable news and Sunday talk shows, on which experts argue whether Geithner's designs amount to 'nationalization,' and in the talking points of conservatives who accuse the president of the term in question -- 'socialism.' . . .

"Or perhaps the nation's firm belief in capitalism has simply been eroded by the economic crisis, along with all other once-firm beliefs about the economy."

Marriage Clash

There isn't much of a gay marriage debate on television since the number of states where it's been legalized doubled, thanks to the Iowa Supreme Court and the Vermont legislature. But there is sharp disagreement in journals of opinion, and National Review offers full-throated opposition:

"Few social goods will come from recognizing same-sex couples as married. Some practical benefits may accrue to the couples, but most of them could easily be realized without changing marriage laws. Same-sex couples will also receive the symbolic affirmation of being treated by the state as equivalent to a traditional married couple -- but this spurious equality is a cost of the new laws, not a benefit. One still sometimes hears people make the allegedly 'conservative' case for same-sex marriage that it will reduce promiscuity and encourage commitment among homosexuals. This prospect seems improbable, and in any case these do not strike us as important governmental goals.

"Both as a social institution and as a public policy, marriage exists to foster connections between heterosexual sex and the rearing of children within stable households. It is a non-coercive way to channel (heterosexual) desire into civilized patterns of living. State recognition of the marital relationship does not imply devaluation of any other type of relationship, whether friendship or brotherhood. State recognition of those other types of relationships is unnecessary. So too is the governmental recognition of same-sex sexual relationships, committed or otherwise, in a deep sense pointless.

"No, we do not expect marriage rates to plummet and illegitimacy rates to skyrocket in these jurisdictions over the next decade. But to the extent same-sex marriage is normalized here, it will be harder for American culture and law to connect marriage and parenthood."

A sharply worded rebuttal from Andrew Sullivan who says that NR "continues to insist that society's exclusive support for straight couples is designed to foster connections between heterosexual sex and the rearing of children within stable households.

"This is an honest and revealing point, and, in a strange way, it confirms my own analysis of the theocon position. It reaffirms, for example, that infertile couples who want to marry in order to adopt children have no place within existing marriage laws, as NR sees them. Such infertile and adoptive 'marriages' rest on a decoupling of actual sex and the rearing of children. The same, of course, applies much more extensively to any straight married couple that uses contraception: they too are undermining what National Review believes to be the core reason for civil marriage. Now, you could argue -- and I suspect NR's editors would -- that society nonetheless has a role in providing moral, social and legal support for couples with children, however those children came about, and to provide 'a non-coercive way to channel (heterosexual) desire into civilized patterns of living.' I agree with this, actually, which is why I do not want to alter or weaken traditional marriage in any way, and regard it as a vital social institution that deserves our support.

"But what of 'channeling homosexual desire into civilized patterns of living?' Ah, there's the rub.

"National Review clearly believes that gays exist beyond the boundaries of civilized life, or even social life, let alone the purview of social policy. But, of course, a total absence of social policy is still a social policy. And such a social policy -- leaving gay people outside of existing social institutions, while tolerating their existence -- has led to some rather predictable consequences. We have, for example, lived through a period in which around 300,000 young Americans died of a terrible disease that was undoubtedly compounded by the total lack of any social incentives for stable relationships . . .

"This is not to deny the responsibility of those of us who contracted HIV. It is to make the core conservative case that culture matters, and that in so far as we can non-coercively encourage and support committed relationships, society, which includes gay people, will be better off. But National Review, stunningly, regards the well-being, health and flourishing of gay people as unworthy of any attention at all."

Palin Passes

What to make of Sarah Palin's decision not to challenge Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010? Makes sense, Christopher Orr says in the New Republic:

"On the one hand, a Senate run would have kept her in the news, enabled her to expand her fundraising networks, and, had she won, made her a presumptive face of the GOP opposition. On the other hand, taking on a Republican incumbent could have been messy, and early polls were all over the map. My guess is that she would have won, but a loss would have been truly embarrassing."

No Comment

One of my pet peeves on this beat is communications companies that don't communicate. The Boston Phoenix looks at the NYT Co.'s silence in the days since it threatened to shut down the Boston Globe unless the unions make big concessions:

"With the Globe poised to lose a whopping $135 million in 2008 and 2009, the Times Co. knows it's time to get rough. And as it does so, it feels zero obligation to justify itself to the Globe -- or to Boston.

"As for [Steven] Ainsley, the Globe's publisher, it's hard to know just what he was thinking. In his April 6 memo to employees, he said the paper never comments on labor negotiations, and expressed regret that the story of the Times Co. ultimatum leaked out the way it did. But given the stakes and the way the media work today, this explanation seems both legalistic and naive.

"As the face of the Globe, Ainsley should be reassuring readers that everything possible will be done to keep the paper alive. Meanwhile, the notion that the story could be kept quiet -- then broken at the Globe's leisure -- suggests ignorance of how quickly information moves nowadays, and how easily news is reported online, by a bevy of different outlets. Throw in the fact that, as one Globe source says, Ainsley is 'publisher of a paper whose reporters beat down the doors of people many times, every day, to force reluctant people to say things,' and his silence looks downright indefensible."

Bonus Watch

Jeffrey Bewkes, the chief executive officer of media giant Time Warner Inc., was awarded compensation in 2008 valued at about $21.5 million according to an Associated Press tally of data filed with regulators . . .

For the full fiscal year, Time Warner reported a loss of $13.4 billion

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