Politico’s Dylan Byers talks to a number of members of the Fourth Estate, and paints this picture of the narrative about the president that has widely taken hold:
In recent months, and especially since the start of the Syria mess, Obama has been enduring some of the toughest and most widespread press criticism of his four-and-a-half years as president. It isn’t just coming from the usual suspects on the right. Increasingly, the skepticism is coming from the center and even from the left — from White House reporters, progressive editorial boards, foreign policy experts and MSNBC hosts.
And Obama has mostly himself to blame for the recent wave of media negativity (although the Republicans have been glad to lend a hand). To hear the press tell it, his handling of the Syria crisis has been confusing and contradictory at best, making him appear weak on the international stage. His administration’s persecution of whistle-blowers and surveillance of the press are at odds with the promises he made as a candidate. His inability to push a progressive agenda through congress makes him appear ineffective.
This is an accurate description of the narratives pushed by the press and the ways they’ve been intertwined into one “Obama is feckless and weak” storyline. But it’s worth separating out two different genres of criticism of Obama, one useful, and the other largely useless.
The first of these falls into the category of criticism of Obama’s actual policy choices. Progressive editorial boards, MSNBC, foreign policy experts and some Tea Party Republican libertarian types have strongly questioned Obama’s decisions on the policy merits on Syria and NSA surveillance alike. They have asked, rightly, whether bombing would accomplish the goals Obama articulated and have argued that surveillance overreach violates basic civil liberties and isn’t really necessary to defend Americans from terrorism. Others on the left — again joined by some Republicans — attacked Obama, rightly, for threatening to bomb Syria without Congressional authorization. These constitute substantive differences with Obama over policy and the proper exercise of presidential power — arguments of real consequence.
These criticisms matter far more than the other genre of criticism of Obama, which is largely focused on the President’s handling and manipulation of process and theatrics, and the consequences that allegedly has had for the president and the country. Into this category fall the arguments, mentioned by Byers above, that Obama’s changes of course during the Syria crisis have been “confusing and contradictory,” that this has made him “appear weak on the international stage,” and that he has failed to muscle a progressive agenda through Congress. (Obama has passed more major liberal legislation than any president since LBJ, but put that aside.)
This second genre of criticism often suffers from a fatal dodge: Its practitioners regularly take refuge behind process criticisms without taking a stand on the substance of the policy debates underlying them. So you have pundits regularly blasting Obama for failing to “bend Congress to his will” without taking a stand on who is right, Obama or Republicans, on the standoffs in question, and without grappling directly with the question of whether structural realities about our politics have rendered Republicans pretty much unwilling or ideologically unable to compromise with Obama — the question that is absolutely central to understanding what is happening in American political life right now.
Or, on Syria, you’ve got pundits regularly blasting Obama for “changing his mind” on going to Congress and on pursuing diplomacy without saying whether or not they think those were the right things to do. (This is separate from arguing over Obama’s motive for doing these things; they can be seen as right on the merits despite the political considerations that may have driven them.) See Al Hunt, Stuart Rothenberg and John Harris for good examples.
If these critics think Obama should have bombed without Congressional assent, and should not have pursued diplomacy when the chance arose, they should say so. If they think these were the right things to do, they should say so. Perhaps they think the latter while simultaneously thinking the very act of changing course in midstream — even in response to changing circumstances, and even if it put us on a better course — weakened Obama and the country. If so, these critics should still take a stand on whether doing the right thing was or wasn’t worth the tradeoff. On balance, did Obama do the right thing, or didn’t he? I think the stated consequences of presidential mind changing are vastly overstated. But if you are going to insist the consequences are significant, what good does it do anyone to assert as much without taking a stand on the relative consequences of the choices themselves? Outcomes matter. If a diplomatic solution is reached, won’t the alleged short-term blow to Obama and/or the country that resulted from changing course have proven worth it?
Very broadly speaking, the conventions of “non-partisan” and “non-ideological” analysis hold that you’re allowed to criticize on process grounds without stating a preference when it comes to policy outcomes. I’m not saying there’s no role for such analysis. I’m just saying it often ends up propping up unstated and unexamined assumptions (a president should never change his mind, because, well, just because) and obfuscating far more than it clarifies, both about important policy debates and about what the writers holding forth on them really think.