Indeed, on occasion, a column is written that seems helpful to Obama when he needs it most. This spring, Obama received sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for being way too tough on the Israelis after declaring that negotiations with the Palestinians should begin from the 1967 borders. On May 25, Zakaria supportively disagreed, weighing in with a column strongly defending Obama’s position and arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should actually be “thanking” the president for “publicly condemning the Palestinian strategy to seek recognition as a state from the UN.” Zakaria made no mention in the column of his private meetings with Obama to talk about the Middle East. (He did not respond to requests for an interview, but has said elsewhere that he has refrained from advising Obama “on a specific policy or speech or proposal.”)
It’s also true that Obama has often taken criticism from pundits he has courted, including on a persistently biting basis from Krugman, not just a columnist but a Nobel Prize winning economist, whose ideas the president has openly solicited and with whom he has privately met in the White House at least once. The debt-ceiling deal reached in August was “an abject surrender on the part of the President,” Krugman wrote. Obama did not win over David Brooks on health care or on the administration’s economic stimulus package, and he took a mocking shot from golf-buddy Friedman for caving to Republicans and opening more federal lands for oil exploration. “Great: Let’s make America even more dependent on an energy resource,” Friedman wrote in May. Zakaria has cast skepticism on Obama’s Libya engagement, bluntly warning of “mission creep.”
And yet, to hear it from the pundits themselves, Obama does help his cause by explaining his policies and offering a frame of reference for the messy set of decisions he is confronting—if only by getting inside their head when it comes time to write. “It’s easy to say that they should do just x, y, and z, but if they’re facing constraints, a, b, and c, then you have to account for that, rather than just bashing them,” Brooks said. “It does affect what you write.”
“Of course, it helps Obama,” Dionne said. “Even if he doesn’t persuade you on the point, you realize that this is an impressive, intelligent man, who can also be very charming, and warmer in groups like that than he is in public appearances.”
Pundits are different than so-called straight journalists in having a license, indeed a duty, to opine, but the columnists are still journalists. So what are the rules that govern, or at least should govern, their encounters with the president and his aides?
For starters, it seems fair to give them wider berth than straight reporters get. If a pundit is having an argument with the president on some policy in a print column, then it doesn’t seem wrong to have that argument continued in an actual sit-down with the President.
Still, some rules ought to apply. There should be a rule of proportion in social engagements with the White House. One state dinner? Sure. One golf game? OK. But if this sort of thing becomes a habit, then the pundit, in the public’s mind, is sure to look like a crony of the president—who is always going to be seen, correctly, as the vastly more powerful member of this pair.
There also should be a rule of transparency. If pundits are dining or golfing or otherwise meeting with the president, even if off the record, they should bend over backwards to tell the public. Ignatius and Fallows showed how this could be done by providing their readers context and reporting on Hu Jintao’s state dinner.
But the occurrence of such encounters is not as thorny, in terms of ethics, as what happens at them. When pundits give specific advice to presidents and their aides in private, they become, in effect, counselors. It’s one thing for a columnist to carry on a debate of ideas with the White House—and another to dispense programmatic tips.