Baker’s piece is worth a read, if only for the way in which he lays out the various and often conflicting comparisons between Obama and his predecessors that have appeared in coverage, and the way those comparisons have tied in with different points of the Obama presidency. We see examples of these kinds of comparisons often, and media critics often note them, but for the most part they come at us somewhat scattershot: a Time cover here, a Politico column there. When synthesized by Baker, it’s really quite eye-opening to see where they fit in the presidential narrative.
After last year’s Republican midterm victories, the Clinton comparisons surged, and Mr. Obama himself said he was reading the historian Taylor Branch’s book on Mr. Clinton, “The Clinton Tapes.” (Mr. Branch last week deemed the analogies the product of a passive electorate and cynical era in which “politics is reduced to a dangerously complacent form of entertainment.”)
As political tides shifted again, the analogies turned to Reagan, who “posed” next to Mr. Obama on another Time cover, making the argument that the 44th president could be for Democrats what the 40th president was for Republicans — a comparison stoked by Mr. Obama, who has praised Reagan as a “transformative” president.
One thing missing, though, in this examination of why journalists and pundits are drawn to a certain style of reporting, is the input of journalists themselves. Of the seven people Baker quotes in the piece, only one, Ronald Brownstein, the editorial director of the National Journal Group, is directly involved in journalism of the type that Baker is examining (others do give input as pundits, but are historians, authors, and communications directors/managers). Baker wrings some interesting insights from Brownstein—“At its worst, that effort becomes like the parody of Hollywood pitch meetings—you know, this is like ‘Miami Vice’ meets ‘The Smurfs,’ or something”—but the piece would have benefited from more input from folks in similar positions. What does Politico’s top brass say is the value of presidential comparisons? Or Time’s Michaels Duffy and Scherer, who brought us the Obama/Reagan cover story? A bit of self-reflection would have been handy here.
It might have come from Baker himself. He writes at one point: “In full disclosure, I wrote one of the first articles making the Johnson analogy as Afghanistan decisions loomed. My wife, Susan Glasser, editor in chief of Foreign Policy, published one of the first magazine covers comparing him to Mr. Carter. (Intriguingly, it was not Mr. Obama who objected, but Mr. Carter.)” And yet, while Baker diligently grinds the cogs to convince us that the phenomenon of comparison has reached new heights with Obama—though, this might also be a matter of the number and constancy of the media outlets who make such comparisons—he does not pause to press himself on what he found valuable in measuring the president against Johnson. We get a number of suggestions, in the form of questions and musings. But if the presidential comparison is a useful trope, he could come out and tell us why, as someone who has employed it. If not, he could explain his reasoning. This might have been a more direct route to the crux of the piece.
In a political column about political writers making comparisons that are often made in the paper for which the author is writing, a little more naval-gazing from Baker might have pushed the meta needle off the dial, true. But it would have also pushed the article to be something more than an diverting he-said, he-said, and then she-said piece about the journalistic method. We might have gotten a smart political journalist seriously examining his own.