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Contact Lux Libertas
Why coverage of Obama is so boring.
July 25, 2013
Remember the summer of 2011, when the left seemed to be losing its patience with Barack Obama? Weakened by his politically inept handling of the debt-ceiling confrontation, the president seemed lost. The criticism of him, as we noted at the time, was that he had failed to tell “a story the American people were waiting to hear–and needed to hear,” as one Drew Westen put it. The word “narrative” got bandied about a lot.
Well, plus ça change. Once again Obama is floundering about, this time trying to divert attention from a series of scandals, including one that calls into question the legitimacy of his re-election. The president is so lost that, as PJMedia’s Bridget Johnson notes, press secretary Jay Carney admits his boss has been forced to resort to celestial navigation: “Carney said Obama will focus on ‘what the North Star is when it comes to moving our economy forward.’ ”
Wow, talk about polarizing.
One thing that was weird about the 2011 demands for “stories” and “narratives” is that they came largely from journalists or other professional writers–that is, from people who make a living by telling stories. You would think a journalist who sees the need for a narrative would do his job and write one instead of leaving it to the politicians.
This time around, Obama seems to have taken a cue from his 2011 critics. Whereas in 2011 he waited until August and September to start giving dreadful, overhyped speeches “on the economy,” this time he started in July. Accordingly, this time he and his 2011 critics are on the same page. What’s striking is how boring that page is to read–or, to put it another way, how bad most contemporary journalists are at telling a story.
“President Obama said reporters praise his economic proposals as ‘great’ and tell him they are ‘all good ideas,’ ” TheHill.com notes in a report on yesterday’s speech. No doubt the guys at the Korean Central News Agency say similar things about Kim Jong-un’s ideas, although one is more inclined to question the latter’s sincerity as opposed to their intelligence.
The problem with the story that Obama and his press sycophants tell is that it is so boring and stupid. It reduces the president and his supporters to stick-figure caricatures of good and evil. (We almost said comic-book characters, but that would be unfair to comic books.) We could fill a column with examples every day, but here are a few that have come across our desk just in the past 24 hours:
National Journal’s Norm Ornstein published a column yesterday titled “The Unprecedented–and Contemptible–Attempts to Sabotage Obamacare.” Although allowing that opposition to ObamaCare is “not treasonous”–a good thing, as a substantial majority of Americans would be traitors if it were–it is “sharply beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials.” (What does “sharply beneath” even mean?)
The second paragraph of Ornstein’s column is comedy gold: “I am not the only one who has written about House and Senate Republicans’ monomaniacal focus on sabotaging the implementation of Obamacare–Greg Sargent, Steve Benen, Jon Chait, Jon Bernstein, Ezra Klein, and many others have written powerful pieces. But it is now spinning out of control.”
Ornstein acknowledges that what he has to say is utterly unoriginal, and to prove it he cites a long list of partisan hacks (all male, by the way; somebody alert Alicia Shepard!) who’ve said the same thing. Then he deploys a histrionic cliché in an attempt to justify the shopworn blather that follows.
“President Obama needs to change the subject to have a successful final term,” a New York Times editorial asserts, revealing more than the editors mean to. The rest of the editorial can be summed up as “Yay Obama, Boo GOP”: “He wasn’t shy about pointing directly at Republicans who have made the problem worse. . . . If the president himself doesn’t get distracted or lose heart in making that case, there is still a chance to put the government–and millions of people–back to work.”
Likewise E.J. Dionne: “[Obama] confronts adversaries determined to move the country in exactly the opposite direction from the one he would have it choose. And up to now, the president has been foiled or distracted whenever he has tried to focus the public conversation on reversing rising inequality and restoring social mobility.”
But this time, Dionne assures us, this will be different. “The president’s critics have said over and over that he needs to ‘go big’ and push the system beyond itself. . . . He appears to have listened.”
What does it mean to “push the system beyond itself”? No doubt the answer to that is buried sharply beneath the surface. At least we understand what “big” means, though we have no clue what it means to “go” it. But one thing we can say is that if Obama is going big, he is going where he has gone many times before:
• “Obama Goes Big in Minority Web World”–headline, USNews.com, Dec. 13, 2007
• “Obama Goes Big–and Political–With $450 Billion Stimulus Plan”–headline, Yahoo! Finance, Sept. 8, 2011
• “His Re-election in Trouble, Obama Goes Big and Gets Serious”–headline, Time.com, June 15, 2012
• “Obama Goes Big With Focus on Small”–headline, Politico.com, June 25, 2012
• “Obama Goes Big on Gun Control”–headline, TheNation.com, Jan. 16, 2013
• “Obama Goes Big on Clean Energy In Budget”–headline, EarthTechling.com, April 11, 2013
If this guy goes any bigger, he’ll be in Anthony Weiner territory. Which seems to have him worried if Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle is to be believed. Yesterday she headlined a blog post: “Obama’s Speech Is a Confession of Impotence.”
That points to an additional problem with the stick-figure narrative of the Obama presidency. It would be one thing if, like a fairy-tale hero, Obama always prevailed in the end. But thus far Obama acolytes have enjoyed no happy endings. The triumphs–the election in 2008, the enactment of ObamaCare in 2010, the (now understood to be tainted) re-election in 2012–have all turned out to be precursors to ever-worse adversity.
To be sure, Obama’s presidency isn’t over yet. As he tediously noted in yesterday’s speech, he still has 1,276 days (now 1,275, yay) to go. But the idea that somehow yesterday’s speech marks a change in character for a presidency that had already dragged on for 1,646 dispiriting days seems to take “hope”–that 2008 campaign slogan–to pathological extremes.
National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar had a column yesterday titled “Obama and the Economy: What Could Have Been.” His argument: “If the president wasn’t weighed down by the health care debate in his first term, he’d be able to get more of his economic agenda passed–perhaps, with a Democratic Congress.”
As an analytical matter, that’s hard to dispute. But Kraushaar’s use of the passive voice is revealing. Obama was “weighed down by the health care debate”? Did somebody try to force or intimidate him into engaging in that “debate”? If so, was he too weak to say no?
For Obama, the trouble with these stories about how awful his adversaries are is that they underscore his weakness and incapacity. “The president has been foiled or distracted whenever he has tried to focus the public conversation,” Dionne whines. He could have added: What a loser.
Republicans are evil, Obama is weak–what a dull narrative that is, and how unsatisfying except as an object of mockery. If only those who sympathize with Obama were willing to acknowledge his flaws–his intellectual superficiality, moral hubris, susceptibility to flattery and political immaturity among them–they might be able to develop a narrative of his presidency that would be interesting and enlightening. Obama might make a compelling tragic hero if today’s journalists had any storytelling ability.
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