Just six months in, Barack Obama’s political future is at stake on many fronts, according to the nation’s political press corps. To cite three examples pulled from yesterday’s New York Times alone: Tom Friedman concludes his latest column on Afghanistan with the thought that Obama has “bet his presidency” on nation-building efforts there. Christopher Drew declares that Obama put “his political capital on the line” by opposing new spending on the F-22 fighter jet. And Sheryl Gay Stolberg, in her update on the health care debate, states that Obama is at a “pivotal moment” that “could shape the rest of his presidency.”
“Could,” of course, being the operative weasel word. All this breathless coverage reminds us that there is, indeed, a lot of stuff going on in the world. And much of that stuff—health care reform, military spending, and the war in Afghanistan included—really is important. But the frame the media is applying here, in which every event and action is interpreted for the effect it might have on future events and actions, leaves a lot to be desired.
For one thing, speaking strictly as a matter of political strategy, not every issue—not even most issues—can be crucial. Media coverage can leave a reader with the impression that Washington, D.C. is the Lake Wobegon of politics, where every skirmish is of above-average significance. This tendency is part of the media’s commercial interest in hyping the issues of the day, but also of the natural human inclination to act as if the topics that matter most to us also matter most to everyone else. I’m grateful that we have celebrity columnists like Friedman working to keep a spotlight on Afghanistan, and to be fair to him, most of his column yesterday concerned the merits of our new approach there. But is it really credible that Obama has “bet his presidency” on this issue? Americans seem to have other things on their mind at the moment.
Of course, it could turn out that a misguided approach to Afghanistan eventually undermines Obama. Or it could be that the outcome of the health care debate sets him on a course that lasts the next four, or the next eight, years. But that’s the thing—we don’t know, and political journalists don’t know any better than the rest of us, because they can’t predict events in the future any better than the rest of us. There’s a theory circulating that if Obama doesn’t win a decisive victory on health care, his presidency will play out much as Bill Clinton’s did. But the president who occupied the White House in between them offers a useful counter-example. In his first months of office, George W. Bush succeeded in getting his top legislative priorities—tax cuts and education reform—passed in short order. Of course, the events that would define his legacy hadn’t yet occurred. Will Obama’s presidency play out more like Clinton’s, or more like Bush’s? Nobody knows.
All this tea-leaf reading might be harmless enough, a way for journalists to claim some bragging rights when some of their predictions—as some predictions must—turn out to be correct. But besides being of limited value to readers, this approach depends on an understanding of politics that can’t really justify the exalted treatment we give it in our news media. To return to the subject of narrative, stories like Stolberg’s mark a point on the dramatic arc of the presidency. This event matters, they say, because it foreshadows what will come later. It’s all part of the grand stage that is Washington. But the precise course of any politician’s career—even a politician who commands the sort of public attention Obama does—is ultimately the concern of a niche audience. The course of public policy (to use an unfortunately bland phrase), on the other hand, is a matter of wide importance.
To put it another way: whether Obama gets Afghanistan right matters for many reasons, but its impact on his presidency is among the least important of them. The outcome of the health care debate matters to the president’s political legacy, but it matters much more, in the aggregate, to Americans who need health care they can afford. And that’s the reality that gets obscured when the press goes searching for pivotal moments.