Obama's hollow victories

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010; 9:12 AM

I've been scratching my head over this for the past year: Does President Obama get credit for the things he does right?

We all know about the things he does wrong, because the media have made that the dominant narrative to explain his sinking poll numbers. (What president, by the way, wouldn't have lousy poll numbers with a rotten economy and a godawful oil spill?)

Obama's stop-and-go difficulties with the Hill, his slow public reaction after the BP disaster, his failure to forge coalitions with the Republicans or change Washington's nasty tone, his inability to bring down the jobless rate -- all are well known and well documented.

But with Thursday's Senate vote to approve sweeping new regulation of the banking industry, the president has now delivered on his promise to clean up the Wall Street practices that nearly imploded the economy.

How much credit will the media give him? Will this be portrayed as a watershed event? Or will it be over by the weekend, with press attention drifting back to the oil well and the midterms?

As one indication, the network newscasts I saw led with BP finally plugging the leak (for which the president will get no credit after 87 days, even though he took a hit for the futile efforts early on). The Senate victory got just a few sentences.

The Washington press corps is heavily poll-driven. If Obama shot up 10 points next week, everyone would go back and point to the banking bill as a turning point. If not, such legislation tends to become background noise.

And therein lies the rub. The financial regulation bill may well help protect consumers and limit the possibility of another banking collapse, but the average Joe won't see any tangible benefits right away. The health-care bill, tarred as more Big Government, remains a blur to most folks, and most of the major benefits are delayed for years (though the White House just announced that insurance companies have to cover some preventative tests for free). The stimulus bill undeniably created jobs, but because the unemployment rate is still flirting with 10 percent and long-term joblessness is a big problem, people don't see it that way.

That's politics. Obama has a huge megaphone, and it's the job of any White House to sell its successes. But it may also say something about our media culture that the successes aren't played that way.

The big, buzzworthy piece on this subject belongs to Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei, who say the banking bill vote "should decisively end the narrative that President Obama represents a Jimmy Carter-style case of naïve hope crushed by the inability to master Washington.

"Yet the mystery remains: Having moved swiftly toward achieving the very policy objectives he promised voters as a candidate, Obama is still widely perceived as flirting with a failed presidency. . . .

"You can argue over whether Obama's achievements are good or bad on the merits. But especially after Thursday's vote you can't argue that Obama is not getting things done. To the contrary, he has, as promised, covered the uninsured, tightened regulations, started to wind down the war in Iraq and shifted focus and resources to Afghanistan, injected more competition into the education system and edged closer to a big energy bill.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company