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.

"The problem is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics, or communications -- in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built. And the promises he made in two years of campaigning turn out to be much less appealing as actual policies. . . .

"On the issues voters care most about -- the economy, jobs and spending -- Obama has shown himself to be a big-government liberal. This reality is killing him with independent-minded voters -- a trend that started one year ago and has gotten much worse of late. . . .

"What is Obamaism? Conservatives think he stands for backdoor socialism. Liberals think he is a sell-out. Independents think he is a president with no clear compass who is breaking the bank with excessive spending."

The piece draws a quick dissent from Jonathan Chait in the New Republic:

"I find the thesis unpersuasive -- Obama remains by far the most popular national politician. Indeed, their argument is almost a self-contradiction -- enacting your policy agenda is the purpose of politics. The article is a strange expression of Washington journalism logic, expressed in its strongest form by Politico, which deems politics a kind of game that exists utterly apart from policy. . . .

"They note that the Obama administration and the press corps hate each other: In what would surprise media critics outside Washington, many reporters don't much like Obama or his gang either. They accurately perceive the contempt with which they are held by his White House, an attitude that undoubtedly flows from the top. Insults and blustery non-responses, f-bombs flying, are common in how West Wing aides speak to reporters. . . .

"During the Clinton administration, liberal complaints were almost totally off the national radar. The internet has given the left a stronger voice, and while that voice is often unreasonable, it's valuable to have a political dialogue that doesn't range from the unhinged right to the very moderate center-left, as we did in the 1990s and early Bush years."

The New York Times also goes there: "Mr. Obama's legislative success poses a paradox: while he may be winning on Capitol Hill, he is losing with voters at a time of economic distress, and soon may be forced to scale back his ambitions."

National Review's Jim Geraghty seems to dismiss the Politico article as spin:

"By the way, why do White House officials talk so candidly to Politico? Probably because they write lines like this: 'Obama is perceived as failing to win over the public, even though by most conventional measures he is clearly succeeding.'

"Silly readers. You only think you don't like what he's doing!"

HuffPost's Jason Linkins is unusually personal:

"Harris and VandeHei don't know people who are unemployed, they don't talk to the unemployed, they don't understand what their lives are like, and they just don't care! So it never really shows up in their reporting, beyond a passing mention in paragraphs 28 through 32."

That sounds a bit harsh. If you're a journalist these days, you know people who have lost their jobs.

The Guardian's Michael Tomasky also sees a mediocre sales job:

"I was always perplexed this past year that the administration didn't do more to highlight some centrist or unobjectionalbe kind of things that it is in fact doing but that no one knows about. Take broadband. If I'd been in there I'd have suggested that Obama himself do several events around the country, in places where they didn't vote for him, touting his administration's push for expanded rural broadband access. Republicans would have had a hard time denouncing that, since he'd have been speaking largely to their constituents, who would have seen that he was doing something for them. They also might have done more to highlight the education policies, which are mildly tough on the teachers' unions and which appear to be meeting with some success and popularity out there.

"The big problem of course is the economy, but the West Wing's lack of political acumen has been a pretty big problem too. They have this very obvious situation confronting them: average Americans feel the administration has been doing a lot of stuff, just not a lot of stuff for them. So show them that you are, and that the Republicans are trying to block it all."

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is struck by one recent poll finding:

"Obama's numbers are suffering from the policy whiplash in Afghanistan, which reminds people of the war they don't like. . . . the economy, which is sending confusing signals and refuses to reveals its intentions about the future. . . . and the oil spill, which reminds people that things, overall, aren't working. . . .

"When you think about it, it's amazing that people don't think Obama spends enough time on economy and jobs. He spends most of his time on the economy and jobs. What he can do about these things is not clear. . . .

"This is why the Obama political team ignores all the taunts about their obsessive focus on trying to persuade people that the Recovery Act was a good thing. They know that they're not going to change a lot of minds. They also know that by focusing on the only thing they control that's creating jobs, they can, at the very least, have the president show up at events where new jobs are created. We don't live in the 1980s where the the president and the White House dictated the image of the day. . . . where the president's putting on a hard hat and testing a piece of equipment sent a signal that. . . . hey, things are picking up."

So how are the MSM playing the Senate vote?

"Nearly two years after a financial crisis triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression," the L.A. Times says, "the Senate approved bold and controversial legislation aimed at preventing a repeat -- and set the stage for a showdown over the issue in this fall's midterm elections.

"The 60-39 vote Thursday was a major victory for President Obama and Democratic leaders and marked the second landmark overhaul -- the first was healthcare reform -- that the administration has pushed through Congress this year."

NYT: "Congress on Thursday gave final approval to an overhaul of the nation's financial regulatory system, intended to address the causes of the 2008 economic crisis and rewrite the rules for a more complex -- and mistrustful -- era on Wall Street. . . .

"When signed by President Obama, the bill will mark the end of more than a generation in which the prevailing posture of Washington toward the financial industry was largely one of hands-off admiration, evidenced by steady deregulation."

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin applauds Chamber of Commerce chief Thomas Donahue for excluding the White House from a jobs summit:

"Business leaders, as I've noted, have started awakening from the dream of a productive relationship with the White House. Now, they aren't even going through the charade of cordiality.

"Well, bravo! There is no rule requiring a group whose interests Obama has consistently undermined to extend an open hand to him or to afford a photo op to the very officials doing the undermining. In fact, only in Washington would it not seem like rank hypocrisy, both for the host and the guest. Now, the group may, if it wishes, open its doors with the hope that the administration might be more forthcoming. But as experience has consistently demonstrated that this is fruitless, why do it?"

Maybe because you want to influence the next round of legislation?

Parsing Palin

Her fundraising prowess has opened the floodgates of 2012 speculation. Mark McKinnon, who worked for George W. Bush and John McCain, says "it's looking more likely that she's going to run for president. Which would be the answer to Obama's electoral prayers.

"I've written before that if Palin is smarter than she is ambitious, she will not run in 2012. She has fame, fortune, and multiple platforms to leverage for years to come. Those opportunities are likely to be diminished if she runs.

"Palin could win the nomination. But she cannot win the general election. . . .

"If she runs and loses the Republican nomination, her opportunity to influence the future is diminished. While she could follow a Reagan-like path and compete again, her loss would create a perilous split in the Republican Party. If her fervent fans refuse to support the nominee (think of Hillary Clinton voters' angst times 10), chances of a Democratic victory in 2012 and beyond could improve significantly.

"If Palin runs, wins the nomination and then loses the general election, she could leave the Republican brand in pieces."

But what about Palin's brand? I've doubted she will run, but I can now see where she might calculate that even a losing crusade would help Sarah Inc.

At Politics Daily, David Corn picks up that point:

"Can a politician who quit her job as Alaska governor and who polls so poorly seriously view herself as White House material? Oh, maybe so. Throughout U.S. history, pols with no shot at winning the presidency have been unable to resist this temptation. There's no telling how Palin assesses herself and her odds.

"But in many cases, those no-chance candidates had a good reason for running: a decent performance can elevate the status of a long-shot candidate. Think Jesse Jackson. Or Ron Paul. With a hardy campaign for the presidency, a loser can still wind up the head of his or her political wing -- and become a real mover and shaker."

Time's Mark Halperin takes the woman from Wasilla seriously:

"Many GOP insiders and consultants, some of whom had dismissed Palin's chances as a presidential contender and written her off as a political flameout, say they are impressed by the competence and impact of Palin's new approach. Says veteran Republican strategist Greg Muller, 'She's set herself up very, very well. She is only going to get stronger.' The majority of voters are still skeptical. A new TIME poll shows Palin losing to Obama 55% to 34%, a lopsided margin that leads some Republican strategists to predict a wipeout if Palin is eventually chosen as the party's nominee. . . .

"The question for Palin now: Can she build on this moment? Although she has taken few steps to prepare for a presidential contest, her path is becoming clearer. It starts with a big advantage: She would be the only woman against a half-dozen or more Republican men. As long as she leaves the door to a race open, she can freeze the field, prevent other GOP hopefuls from gaining much traction, keep the media in a perpetual will-she-or-won't-she frenzy and jump into the race whenever she likes."

Geez, are we that easy?

Name game

So the Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson went out and bought the domain name KeithOlberman.com. Salon quickly pronounced this "childish, petty and boorish behavior for a formerly respected journalist" -- then retaliated by buying TuckerCarlson.net. We'll keep you posted on these vital developments on the Internets.

Man behind the Mel scandal

David Perel, former editor of the National Enquirer, now runs Radar Online, which has been posting all the ugly Mel Gibson rants and threats to his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Perel tells the Daily Beast's Jacob Bernstein that "it's the celebrity story of the year, no question. It's just so shocking. And it works on so many different levels."

Perel "swears that in this instance, no money changed hands. 'We did not pay for the tapes,' says Perel. 'Not a dime.'

"The way he tells it, the whole thing was something of a date with destiny. Three weeks ago, someone at his news organization got a tip that Gibson had filed a restraining order against Grigorieva. A couple of reporters descended upon Grigorieva's home in a door-knocking expedition. There, they encountered the scorned woman who said: 'Mel's playing dirty. The truth will come out.' Within short order, it did. In a series of installments. . . .

"Perhaps predictably, traffic for the site has gone through the roof. According to conservative estimates from Quantcast.com, unique visitors to Radar doubled from three million to six million during the last month alone."

This kind of scoop can pay dividends for years, as TMZ found with its Gibson-DUI arrest exclusive.

Gulf hunks

Why, exactly, is Media Bistro showing us pictures of the sexiest oil-spill correspondents? Which sort of leads into my next item:

Link bait

Think many people will click on this Huffington Post headline?

"Woman with World's Biggest Breasts Fights for Her Life."

Oops, I guess I just boosted the traffic.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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