Politico, Heal Thyself

The first step to recovery is acknowledging you have a problem

Kudos to John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei for their narrative-dissecting essay, “How Obama plays media like a fiddle.” In the piece published yesterday, Politico’s editor-in-chief and executive editor argue that the “turnaround” President Obama has managed to (seemingly) orchestrate since the Democrats’ midterms “shellacking,” says more about the Beltway media than it does about the commander-in-chief. The bottom line sounds almost Palin-esque: Obama knows how to tickle the mainstream media in all the right places and he’s had them giggling to his tune since November:

He is doing it by exploiting some of the most long-standing traits among reporters who cover politics and government—their favoritism for politicians perceived as ideologically centrist and willing to profess devotion to Washington’s oft-honored, rarely practiced civic religion of bipartisanship.

Time’s Mark Halperin has hailed Obama as “magnetic,” “distinguished” and “inspiring” — in one story. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour saw “Reaganesque” optimism and “Kennedyesque” encouragement — all in one speech. Howard Fineman, the former Newsweek columnist who now writes for The Huffington Post, said conductor Obama was now leading a “love train” through D.C.

Deep down in the pits of their hearts, the argument goes, Beltway pad-carriers are all gooey for bipartisanship. Harris and VandeHei write: “The majority of political writers we know might more accurately be accused of centrist bias. That is, they broadly believe in government activist but are instinctually skeptical of anything that smacks of ideological zealotry and are quick to see the public interest as being distorted by excessive partisanship.” Or as The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen wrote in an approving response to Harris and VandeHei’s piece, “When push comes to shove, it’s a D.C. industry filled with David Broders.”

The authors go on to list a number of strategies, aside from this procedural and public bipartisanship, that the president and his team have used to woo the press into a turnaround. He met with all the right bipartisan Washington operatives, thus making everything right again in the Beltway world; he toyed with the media’s tendency toward presidential comparisons by pushing the Obama-as-Reagan angle; he railed on the deficit; and he positioned himself as a center between the “wing nut” far right (Michele Bachmann) and far-left “angry liberals” (Mark Udall).

While Harris and VandeHei aren’t particularly aggressive in condemning their D.C. colleagues, the few fingers they do point are aimed outward—at Halperin, at Fineman, and, oddly, at Beltway newcomer Amanpour. But even a quick scan of Politico’s archives shows that some of its reporters are as guilty of being tickled by those very moves as some of the big names mentioned above.

In their analysis, for example, Harris and VandeHei talk about Obama taking advantage of the “press’s bias for bipartisan process,” and the positive write-ups the newly magnanimous president enjoyed by exploiting that. They mention specifically the extension of the Bush tax cuts, passed late last year. Interestingly, in Politico reporter Glenn Thrush’s report on the extension—itself a sharp piece of reporting in which Thrush looks at how the president is rebranding himself—he perfectly encapsulates the narrative the president pushed. (Our emphasis.)

Obama closed the most impressive sales job of his presidency a few minutes before the clock struck midnight on Thursday—winning House approval of a broadly popular tax-cut and unemployment extension opposed by the extremes of both parties.

If the past two years have been spent ramming though Obama’s ambitious and often unpopular policy agenda, whatever the cost, the past two weeks have been an exercise in salesmanship and compromise—some would say capitulation—unlike anything he’s pulled off as president.

“He’s done a damn good job selling, as good as anything he’s ever sold,” Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), said with a chuckle, a few hours before the measure headed to Obama’s desk after passing with a 277-to-148 vote.

“My problem is trying to figure out exactly what he’s selling.”

In a word: himself.

While admitting the deal itself is profoundly flawed, Obama nonetheless achieved a moment at least of bipartisanship with Republicans, persuaded Democrats to accept diminished expectations and went a long way toward rebranding himself as Obama Classic—the circa-2008 politician at war with partisan discord.

Thrush may not have been fooled by the narrative, but he’s definitely pushing it.

And where Harris and VandeHei write, “Reporters are suckers for comparisons—often glib or even bogus comparisons—between current and past presidents,” they should be equally careful with any finger-pointing. They write that Obama has turned his own comparisons to Carter into comparisons with more successful presidents, Reagan and Clinton. But after Obama’s famous Tucson speech, Thrush ran a report for Politico specifically framed by comparisons to Reagan and Clinton—with only the most tangential mention of Carter. The headline: “Obama speech recalls Reagan.” The lede?

Two weeks after President Barack Obama returned from a Hawaiian vacation spent reading a 900-page biography of Ronald Reagan, he delivered a speech in Tucson, Ariz., Wednesday that incorporated, but didn’t parrot, the gilded, common-touch oratory of the 40th president.

The pageantry and patter of the Oval Office that came so naturally to Reagan and Bill Clinton haven’t come quite as easily to Obama, an electrifying campaign performer who is finally mastering the intimate, idiosyncratic language of the American presidency.

Again, Thrush doesn’t buy the new comparison hook, line and sinker, but still, it is the WH-favored comparison—“glib,” “bogus,” or otherwise. Ultimately, Obama is aligned with the two presidents that his aides have herded into his corner. Thrush writes:

…Obama is internalizing a lesson that came as second nature to his two predecessors: A president who can’t make a consistent emotional connection with the people he leads is a president who can’t govern effectively.

Ultimately, Harris and VandeHei have done us a service, acknowledging the Beltway media’s inner leanings, the pervasive groupthink that leads to so much same-same, narrative-following, and often superficial reporting. And maybe they chose not to put themselves in the same basket as Halperin and ABC because they don’t yet consider Politico a part of the mainstream media. (Potentially a false humility given that Harris is co-moderating the first Republican primary debate with Brian Williams, and Politico is co-sponsoring.)

But the service would have been greater if Harris and VandeHei had looked as closely at themselves as they did at their surrounds.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,