One of the persistent memes of American political journalism is that our president must always be testing his political power in some arena or other. In stories laden with words like “risk,” “gamble,” “hazard,” and “peril,” the Leader of the Free World attempts to exert his influence—which is, apparently, awesome but simultaneously fragile. If he is successful, the power he expended is not just returned but multiplied. If he fails, he is weakened for any future venture. The overall picture, tracked eagerly by the press, calls to mind either a magical talisman or one of those bars in old video games showing how much life your character has left.
As with many bits of conventional wisdom, there’s something to this line of thinking, but it can easily be taken too far. Today’s evidence: a round of stories in the top political press about the great gamble Barack Obama is taking by traveling to Copenhagen to stump for Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Those stories all raise the not-unreasonable question of whether, given the ongoing debates over health care and Afghanistan, the president should leave town for an issue like this, even for less than twenty-four hours. But they are chiefly concerned with what political harm might befall Obama if the pitch fails. This concern is reflected in the headlines: “In Pitch for Games, a Gamble for Obama,” says the New York Times. “Olympics trip a political gamble for Obama,” worries the LA Times. “Barack Obama risks prestige for Chicago Olympic bid,” declares Politico. (The Washington Post, whose detailed but low-key story is a partial exception to the trend, goes, online at least, with the restrained “Obama Will Travel to Copenhagen to Support Chicago’s Bid for 2016 Games.”)
Those heds are fair representations of the stories: by associating himself with the effort, Obama “risks looking diminished if Chicago’s bid falls short,” says the LAT. The NYT places the stakes even higher, saying Obama “risks a major international embarrassment if the committee rebuffs him and rejects Chicago.”
These declarations of high stakes aren’t manufactured by journalists; the articles feature plenty of comments by analysts, observers, and old Washington hands that embrace this logic. But that logic is more asserted than explained—nowhere is the alchemical process by which an ability to sway the famously inscrutable International Olympic Committee translates into a loss of “political capital” that will have material consequences for meaningful policy debates, or for Obama’s ability to implement his agenda, ever spelled out. If the IOC delegates don’t yield to Obama’s will, this will have consequences for
the outcome of debates in Congress, or for future international relations… why, exactly? This view of politics seems to come from teen movies, in which to be “embarrassed” is the ultimate sin, and landing on the losing side of any battle is a sign of irrevocable weakness.
To be fair: this isn’t the greatest journalistic sin in the world, and it’s a fairly slow news day on the domestic politics front. But that’s no reason to invent or hype a risk that really isn’t there, or to select a familiar narrative that may not apply in this case. Meanwhile, while the reporters were embracing this narrative, they allowed one of the president’s critics to get away with a cheap shot. The LAT and NYT quote, and Politico paraphrases, a complaint by Kit Bond, the Republican senator from Missouri, that Obama was spending more time on non-essential tasks than talking to his top commander in Afghanistan. What the stories didn’t say—and that both the reporters and Bond should, and probably do, know—is that Obama’s limited contact with Gen. McChrystal has a lot more to do with his efforts to restore the chain of command than the time he’s spending on Letterman.