Winning the Morning, Missing the Point

Politico buries the lede in its big Obama story

Politico bigwigs John Harris and Jim VandeHei have a big thinkpiece out this morning headlined, “Why Obama Loses by Winning.” As an artifact of media strategy, it’s a classic example of Politico’s attempts to set the narrative or “win the day”—it was the lead item in Playbook this morning, natch. And as an artifact of political journalism, it’s a classic example of burying the lede.

The problem the piece presents is this: Why, even as he has “moved swiftly toward achieving the very policy objectives he promised voters as a candidate,” is Obama “still widely perceived as flirting with a failed presidency”? (The note of Obama’s relative success in enacting his agenda, coming less than six months after Harris deemed the White House’s “big-bang strategy officially a failure,” is a bit rich, but let that pass.) The evidence for those perceptions that’s presented here—a buzzed-about essay in The Nation, discord with Democrats in Congress, and declining poll numbers among independents—is a little thin. Liberal elites, members of Congress, and independent voters are all distinct groups with distinct interests, so any trouble the president is having with them may have very different, even contradictory, causes. Still, it seems safe to say that Obama’s political standing isn’t all he’d like it to be at the moment. What’s Politico’s explanation for that?

The problem is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics, or communications — in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built.

Or, in other words, what John Dickerson said in Slate the other day. (So much for Politico being first to these memes.) What follows is a smorgasbord of complaints about Obama’s presidency—independents’ unease over his “big-government liberalism,” his failure to stake out clear ideological terrain that would assure him a base of support, the fact that his staff is not well-liked on Capitol Hill or in the D.C. press corps, the tactical weakness of the West Wing’s political team, etc., etc.

Finally, nearly 1,700 words in, we get this:

No politician can escape the gravitational pull of bad employment numbers and economic figures in real-time.

This is true. Economic conditions are probably the most significant factor shaping voters’ views about the president (and about a whole range of other political phenemona, too). And voters’ views about the president, in turn, help define political reality.

Harris and VandeHei write that “by late July of 2009 — right around the time Obama was talking up health care and pressuring Democrats to vote on cap-and-trade legislation — independents started to take flight.” For some of those independents—those folks aren’t actually a coherent bloc—that flight really may have been a response to Obama’s perceived “big-government liberalism,” as Politico posits. But almost surely more important is a data point Nate Silver flagged Wednesday*:

Employment reports which came out between February 2009 and July 2009 showed the economy losing 3.7 million jobs, far worse than what most economists were anticipating: an economic catastrophe.

The loss of support among independents, of course, made congressional Democrats, who have to face voters two years before Obama does, very wary. Much of the discord between the White House and Congress is about different approaches to the Democrats’ current political predicament. That discord has made it harder than it would have been—and it already would have been hard—to pass stronger versions of the health care and financial reform bills, which has helped produce disappointment among parts of his liberal base.

In short—every news article that seeks to explain some apparent mystery about the president’s political standing should begin by looking at the economy. It’s not that other things don’t affect how the president’s doing, or aren’t interesting or important on their own terms—they do, and they are. But the role of the economy is not secondary to “the likability factor” in determining how the president’s faring. And it’s not co-equal, either. It’s the most important thing, and journalism that doesn’t make that clear is doing a disservice to its readers.

*Silver was responding to this Sean Trende piece at RealClearPolitics that makes a detailed argument against the primacy of the economy in shaping political outcomes, which is well worth reading for people interested in this debate, as is Brendan Nyhan’s counterargument. I’m not qualified to evaluate the soundness of the models being presented, but I agree with Nyhan that even crediting Trende’s model, the difference here seems to be more of degree than of kind—Politico’s framing looks a little better if you accept Trende’s argument, but it’s not exonerated, either.

Update: Nyhan also has similar thoughts about the Dickerson and Politico pieces.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.