By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, June 1, 2009
The Obama infatuation is a great unreported story of our time. Has any recent president basked in so much favorable media coverage? Well, maybe John Kennedy for a moment, but no president since. On the whole, this is not healthy for America.
Our political system works best when a president faces checks on his power. But the main checks on Obama are modest. They come from congressional Democrats, who largely share his goals if not always his means. The leaderless and confused Republicans don't provide effective opposition. And the press -- on domestic, if not foreign, policy -- has so far largely abdicated its role as skeptical observer.
Obama has inspired a collective fawning. What started in the campaign (the chief victim was Hillary Clinton, not John McCain) has continued, as a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows. It concludes: "President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House."
The study examined 1,261 stories by The Post, the New York Times, ABC, CBS and NBC, Newsweek magazine and the "NewsHour" on PBS. Favorable articles (42 percent) were double the unfavorable (20 percent), while the rest were "neutral" or "mixed." Obama's treatment contrasts sharply with coverage in the first two months of the Bush (22 percent of stories favorable) and Clinton (27 percent) presidencies.
Unlike George Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama received favorable coverage in both news columns and opinion pages. The nature of stories also changed. "Roughly twice as much of the coverage of Obama (44 percent) has concerned his personal and leadership qualities than was the case for Bush (22 percent) or Clinton (26 percent)," the report said. "Less of the coverage, meanwhile, has focused on his policy agenda."
When Pew broadened the analysis to 49 outlets -- cable channels, news Web sites, morning news shows, more newspapers and National Public Radio -- the results were similar, despite some outliers. No surprise: MSNBC was favorable, Fox was not. Another study, released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, reached parallel conclusions.
The infatuation matters because Obama's ambitions are so grand. He wants to expand health-care subsidies, tightly control energy use and overhaul immigration. He envisions the greatest growth of government since Lyndon Johnson. The Congressional Budget Office estimates federal spending in 2019 at nearly 25 percent of the economy (gross domestic product). That's well up from the 21 percent in 2008, and far above the post-World War II average; it would also occur before many baby boomers retire.
Are his proposals practical, even if desirable? Maybe they're neither? What might be the unintended consequences? All "reforms" do not succeed; some cause more problems than they solve. Johnson's economic policies, inherited from Kennedy, proved disastrous; they led to the 1970s' "stagflation." The "war on poverty" failed. The press should not be hostile, but it ought to be skeptical.
Mostly, it isn't. The idea of a "critical" Obama story is one about a tactical conflict with congressional Democrats or criticism from an important constituency. Larger issues are minimized, despite ample grounds for skepticism.
Obama's rhetoric brims with inconsistencies. In the campaign, he claimed he would de-emphasize partisanship -- and also enact a highly partisan agenda; both couldn't be true. He got a pass. Now, he claims he will control health-care spending even though he proposes more government spending. He promotes "fiscal responsibility" when projections show huge and continuous budget deficits. Journalists seem to take his pronouncements at face value even when many are two-faced.
The cause of this acquiescence isn't clear. The press sometimes follows opinion polls; popular presidents get good coverage, and Obama is enormously popular. By Pew, his job approval rating is 63 percent. But because favorable coverage began in the campaign, this explanation is at best partial.
Perhaps the preoccupation with the present economic crisis has diverted attention from the long-term implications of other policies. But the deeper explanation may be as straightforward as this: Most journalists like Obama; they admire his command of language; he's a relief after Bush; they agree with his agenda (so it never occurs to them to question basic premises); and they don't want to see the first African American president fail.
Whatever, a great edifice of government may arise on the narrow foundation of Obama's personal popularity. Another Pew survey shows that since the election the numbers of both self-identified Republicans and Democrats have declined. "Independents" have increased, and "there has been no consistent movement away from conservatism, nor a shift toward liberalism."
The press has become Obama's silent ally and seems in a state of denial. But the story goes untold: Unsurprisingly, the study of all the favorable coverage received little coverage.