Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It would be nice if we had a functioning national press, Dana Milbank version

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank trots out the undying conventional wisdom about Democratic Presidents, that they are weak. This fits well with the Republican narrative in which the Republicans and especially Republican Presidential candidates are tough and manly. In the case of Michelle Bachmann, I suppose they'll have to make her the American Iron Lady.

This cartoon accompanied the online version:

Here's Milbank litany against President Obama, The most powerful man on Earth? 08/08/2011:

A familiar air of indecision preceded President Obama’s pep talk to the nation.
"No matter what some agency may say, we've always been and always will be a AAA country," Obama said, as if comforting a child who had been teased by the class bully.
In the CW/Republican view, the President should be the class bully.

It's not exactly fair to blame Obama for the rout: Almost certainly, the markets ignored him. And that's the problem: The most powerful man in the world seems strangely powerless, and irresolute, as larger forces bring down the country and his presidency.
In the preceding paragraphs, Milbank makes the unlikely and unprovable assumption that the drop in the market beginning with the moment Obama started speaking on Monday was due to Obama's speech. Then he turns around in the paragraph just quoted and said that Obama was too insignificant for The Markets to notice - and that's a bad thing, too!

... activists on his own side are calling him weak.
Pod Pundits like Milbank pay attention to liberals - when their position happens to momentarily agree in some way with what the CW is anyway.

Yet Obama plods along, raising gobs of cash for his reelection bid ... and varying little the words he reads from the teleprompter.
It was not so long ago that the press mocked Sarah Palin for taking a dumb jab at Obama for using a teleprompter, a completely normal and unremarkable thing. But now it's become a standard litany among Very Serious People like Milbank to toss it out to show that Obama's a big phony.

Milbank also notes that Obama misspoke at one point Monday and instead of "bipartisan" said "biparticle." With George W. Bush, we should remember, the adoring pundits took His difficulty in even pronouncing four-syllable words and his garbled syntax as evidence of how close he was to the "small people," to steal a phrase from BP's former CEO.

Milbank cites Norah O’Donnell (CBS), Laura Meckler (Wall Street Journal), Glenn Thrush (Politico) and Chuck Todd (NBC) who were all urgently pressing Obama via his press secretary Jay Carney to call Congress back into session to do, something or other. Milbank unsurprisingly takes it for granted that this press groupthink urgency over something that makes no apparent sense is Serious thinking. What, Obama's going to call Congress back to demand more spending cuts just so the Republicans can stall action for months as they demand and get concession after concession from the White House?

His concluding paragraphs are classic Beltway Village puffery. We tune in as the heroic reporters demand of Carney that his boss call Congress back into immediate session for whatever reason the swooning pearl-clutchers have decided it's a good idea:

"Why?” inquired Politico's Glenn Thrush. "He's the leader of the free world. Why isn't he leading this process?"

That is the enduring mystery of Obama’s presidency. He delivered his statement on the economy beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but that was as close as he came to forceful leadership. He looked grim and swallowed hard and frequently as he mixed fatalism ("markets will rise and fall") with vague, patriotic exhortations ("this is the United States of America").

"There will always be economic factors that we can’t control," Obama said. Maybe. But it would be nice if the president gave it a try.
It's nice in a Cold-War-nostalgia kind of way that the press still refers to the President as the Leader of the Free World. Although if it ever made sense, it's hard to see how it does now.

But what's striking about Milbank's columns is that he trashes Obama for lack of leadership - again, the conventional/Republican criticism of all Democratic Presidents and Presidential candidates - but doesn't actually say what he thinks that abstract leadership should do about economic troubles. Other than stage theatrics more pleasing to our Pod Pundits (Call Congress back into session to do nothing!). Which still wouldn't stop them from trashing him for alleged weak leadership.

Milbank criticizes some aspects of Obama's conduct that deserve criticism. He's right, for instance, that Obama's comment about the US being a triple-A nation sounded in the context like someone "comforting a child who had been teased by the class bully." It may fit into a badly-overdrawn conservative meme, but Obama actually does sometimes talk down to the public in a way that is visibly condescending. But the fact that Milbank manages to identify some actual weaknesses doesn't give his own version any actual policy content. It's just CW chatter.

It's very telling that Milbank misses Obama's own unintentional mention of his own recklessness in the debt-ceiling negotiations.

He reminded all that the situation isn't his fault (the need for deficit reduction "was true the day I took office"), he blamed the other side ("we knew . . . a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip could do enormous damage to our economy") and he revisited the same proposals he had previously offered to little effect: extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, and spending more on infrastructure projects. [my emphasis]
Joan Walsh, who seems to be trying hard not to draw despairing conclusions from Obama's conservatism, makes a much more perceptive observation in Today's subprime American politics Salon 08/08/2011:

But Obama isn't above criticism here either. I think sometimes progressives, myself included, act like he can wave a magic wand and change political reality – get 60 votes for his policy in the Senate, or make the Tea Party go away. He can't. But in his first remarks on the S&P downgrade Monday, he said something revealing and disturbing: "We knew from the outset that a prolonged debate over the debt ceiling -- a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip -- could do enormous damage to our economy and the world's."

In fact Obama himself tried to use GOP insanity about the debt ceiling to craft a "grand bargain" to cut entitlements and raise "revenues." So he bears some responsibility for the "prolonged debate over the debt ceiling" and participating in making it "a bargaining chip." Had he come out and said he wouldn't let the GOP hold the economy hostage, invoked Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and scheduled the "grand bargain" debate for some other occasion, they might have held him and the economy hostage anyway, but at least he wouldn't have appeared willing to pay them ransom. Obama also said "there's not much further we can cut" from the defense budget, which is absolutely not true. But since the "trigger" that the debt-ceiling deal used to try to force a deficit compromise includes steep defense cuts, the president just telegraphed he won't allow that trigger to be pulled. [my emphasis]
Star pundits like Milbank are looking at what may well be the crumpling of the Obama Presidency, a watershed failure of our political institutions in the failure of a depression-length economic slump, and (possibly) the shattering of the Democratic Party. And yet all Milbank can do is recite the stock CW/Republican attack on Democratic Presidents: he's a wimp!

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