The right-wing media isn’t right about much, not even by accident. But they might have one point: The press sometimes gives President Obama a pass when it shouldn’t.
By almost any measure, Barack Obama is having the best stretch of his presidency.
He recently had big wins on health care and his loathsome trade agreement, sandwiched around a controversial hit-generating use of the n-word, a singing debut and the securing of a surprising bipartisan agreement on the use of peas in guacamole.
This week, he’s teeing up a nuclear deal with Iran and a long-overdue effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in what the networks are calling a “legacy-hunting” finale to his big momentum surge. More and more, the coverage of all of these stories has been less about the politics, and more about the angle of Barack Obama’s ongoing personal quest for acceptance.
The stories all have an E! network feel to them, as in: Barack Obama whipped the Republicans in court, sealed a deal with Iran, makes America’s tastiest guacamole and gets more web hits than Caitlyn Jenner. Can you say en fuego?
“It’s fun being Barack Obama again!” blared CNN. “Obama Defies Second Term Slump,” announced The Hill, noting, in classic “Nixon is tanned, rested and ready” fashion, that, “Obama appears more confident and relaxed than ever.”
Donald Trump praised Obama’s Charleston speech. The First Lady lit up the celebrity journo world when she released a beefcake shirtless photo of Barack as a young man. The president even rolled sixes as a sports fan, cheerfully chiming in on Jimmy Butler’s new deal with his hometown Bulls.
Political reporters have always loved the angle of the White House as Buckingham palace, the first family as royalty. And with each new president there’s always unconscious striving in the press corps for an American President-style plotline, in which the chief executive completes a personal psychological journey while in office, emerging at the end of his political trial not only triumphant, but happy.
With this administration, though, the personal journey story has been held in a perpetual state of coitus interruptus because Barack Obama the man has been under constant attack virtually from the moment the polls closed in 2008.
This president has had to take so much guff from the right wing – which has ludicrously painted him as a foreign-born Marxist and deemed him responsible for everything from McKinney to Sandy Hook to Ebola to the Baltimore riots to the (now sooner than expected) Rapture – that the press never got to scratch the Henry V mythmaking itch with this administration. Obama has mostly been too depressed and ashen for the role.
In recent weeks, the fog lifted. Obama didn’t just win big in the same Supreme Court that once handed the presidency to George W. Bush. He also scored at a time when the Republican Party is in total shambles.
Things are so bad in the GOP tent that people like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are fleeing toward Obama politically in an attempt to escape the public relations carnage caused by the Republican presidential campaign.
One can only imagine the mood in the RNC offices when the second-leading candidate in the clown car race for the GOP nomination is a man who just described Mexican immigrants as rapists. Being a Republican this month is worse than being a Knicks fan in the Isiah Thomas years.
So Obama is finally enjoying the job. Even if you don’t agree with his politics, it’s hard not to appreciate that story arc, particularly considering the obvious racial component to the animus toward this president. Some of the world’s meanest bigots and jackasses are Obama haters, and watching those people turtle is always quality entertainment.
But the coverage of this president’s ongoing and generally sympathetic battle for personal acceptance sometimes distorts the political story. The press is beginning to cover Obama’s political successes in value-neutral fashion, as though wins are wins, no matter what they mean.
In its “legacy-hunting” piece, for instance, CNN‘s Stephen Collinson wrote:
“[Obama’s backers] claim big wins in his recall of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and a nuclear arms reduction deal with Moscow, and they maintain that he repaired U.S. alliances in Europe strained by the Iraq war while reinvigorating U.S. standing in East Asia.
Obama also hunted down Osama bin Laden and employed a ruthless drone campaign and expansive surveillance program that have helped prevent another large-scale terror attack on U.S. soil.”
Yikes! You know things have gotten weird when a Democratic White House is selling reporters on the idea that a “ruthless drone campaign” and an “expansive surveillance program” are feathers in their president’s cap. If Bush bragged about those things, the streets of Washington would be filled with marchers.
Regarding that “expansive surveillance program”: While we fawn over the president’s guacamole here at home, people in the rest of the world have lately begun to wonder where they have to go to have a conversation without Barack Obama listening.
Just a few weeks ago, Obama met with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in Washington for the first time since news broke via the Snowden documents that the United States had bugged her phone. In the meeting, Obama took her to visit a new statue of Martin Luther King, with whom Rousseff has something in common – he too had his phones tapped by the U.S. government.
Then last week, after hearings in the German parliament about the Obama administration’s record of spying on Germany, CNN reported that we not only may have tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also spied on private media organizations. In the latter case, it seems the CIA pressured German officials to take action against a state aide who was leaking sensitive material to the press, including Der Spiegel.
What kind of leaks? Back in 2005, Der Spiegel ran a damaging exposé about our disgusting extraordinary rendition policies. It also ran a series of stories based on the Wikileaks and Snowden documents, including some ugly stuff about the NSA’s ongoing efforts to crack the encryption codes of domestic communications programs like Skype.
Speigel also originally reported on the bugging of Merkel’s phone.
It’s important to note that none of the magazine’s reports compromised national or international security. But all of them were embarrassing to the United States politically. Obama had to take a personal call from an angered Merkel after the cell phone story.
Whatever the legitimate job of our intelligence agencies is, it’s certainly not to protect a presidential administration from political embarrassment. Obama himself wrote a directive in 2014 insisting that intelligence collection is done “exclusively where there is a foreign intelligence purpose…and not for any other purposes.”
Again, we would have savaged George Bush for this behavior. Back in the Bush years, progressive America was united in its concern about the expansion of the security state. We didn’t want the government checking our library cards, much less bugging a politically irksome magazine, mass-collecting cell phone records or teaming up with private corporations to trap Skype transmissions.
But we don’t talk about that stuff much now. In fact, even as the Washington press is gearing up early to script the post-mortems on the Obama administration, and more or less announcing that this president is going to get the conquering-Caesar treatment if he brings home the Iran and Cuba deals, the flip side of the Obama legacy is getting less and less ink.
Domestic spying, jailing of whistleblowers, spying on allies, spying on the media, spying for political gain, extralegal murder by flying robots and would-be regulators parachuting out of office straight into high-paying revolving-door jobs (good morning, Eric Holder) – all of these things mysteriously stopped being dealbreakers for American voters under Obama’s watch.
There was little uproar this April when an American hostage named Warren Weinstein and an Italian named Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in a drone attack, and all Obama could do was channel Henry Kissinger and trot out the old “mistakes were made” line. (He actually said “deadly mistakes” were made.)
People learned to feel powerless to stop these things in the last eight years. So they stopped worrying about them. Maybe we developed outrage fatigue.
In many ways, the right wing’s constant brainless persecution of Barack Obama the person has been self-defeating. They’ve cried wolf so many times about things like Obama’s Trotskyite world domination plans or his efforts to lead U.N. takeovers of Lubbock, Texas, that they’ve dulled what otherwise might have been widespread concern over genuinely troubling government overreaches, the expansion of the surveillance state being an example.
Moreover they created a narrative about a personally martyred president that changed the way we think about politics. We learned to take sides for or against the all-consuming witch hunt of Obama the man, instead of debating the more prosaic question of what the U.S. government has been up to for the last seven years. Many of those things haven’t been good.
This isn’t about raining on Barack Obama’s long-delayed parade. It’s just worth pointing out that covering the human being is different than covering an administration. Getting the two stories confused is almost always a bad thing.