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Politico: Obama Loses By Winning?

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Today's big Politico piece, by John Harris and Jim VandeiHei, "Why Obama loses by Winning", has been rightly dubbed by Jay Rosen as "an instant classic in Church of the Savvy lit." It truly is a marvel!

It begins with a willful misread-slash-hyperbolic reduction of a "widely read" Eric Alterman column (the authors enable this misread by skillfully denying their readers a link to the Alterman piece, which actually describes the structural conditions that have prevented President Barack Obama from enacting a full-blooded progressive agenda), which in turn allows them to make this silly case that even though Obama has managed to get major pieces of legislation through Congress, his presidency is a failure because it makes bloggers sad.

Naturally, the whole thing is built upon a foundation of anonymous sources. We hear from all the old mainstays: the "top Obama advisor," the "top White House official," and another random adviser. Given the fact that Harris and VandeHei claim that the piece is underpinned by "interviews with officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and with Democratic operatives around town," the dearth of sources is pretty glaring.

But here's where we are. The editors claim that independents are leaving Obama because he "has shown himself to be a big-government liberal." Mind you, they have already stipulated that Obama has had success enacting his agenda. That agenda included many things that he ran on, like health care reform, financial regulatory reform, winding down the war in Iraq, and prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. You can call that "centrist" or "liberal" if you like, but that's precisely what those independent voters signed up for in November 2008. So, either these independent voters are addled -- and thus unworthy of bellwether status, or there is another dominant factor in the political environment that's causing them unease. In this case, VandeHarris should have given greater weight to one of the only sourced items they have:

"The key thing here is the economy and the unemployment rate hangs over everything," another top White House official told us. "Until that gets better, for most people, they will be frustrated."

The unemployment crisis is the singular distortion factor in American politics, the end. One in six Americans is unemployed or underemployed. And that's such a vast number of people that even those who aren't feeling the direct brunt of the crisis know someone very dear to them who is affected by it. And so we are a nation that's strugging to do what work and a steady income allow us to do: conceive of and plan for our own future. It's difficult to do a lot of heavy lifting, policy-wise, in that environment. And so the heavy-lifters are struggling to keep the voters' faith -- change compounds the uncertainty, the typical process of compromise and favor-trading stirs resentment, and the constant din of fear-mongering stokes... well, fear.

Eventually, way down the piece, the unemployment crisis is mentioned with a slightly smaller degree of shallowness. You practically beg the authors to connect the very obvious dots. Instead, they just lay it out there as another tile in the cartoon mosaic they are building. It's pure inside-the-bubble thinking. But what can you do? Harris and VandeHei don't know people who are unemployed, they don't talk to the unemployed, they don't understand what their lives are like, and they just don't care! So it never really shows up in their reporting, beyond a passing mention in paragraphs 28 through 32.

The editors go on and on. The Congress and the White House don't seem to "like" each other very much! This is the first time that any sort of rivalry or tension has ever occurred between similarly-minded people in two of the branches of government!

Also, the White House staff seems to be filled with people who actually make mistakes. Sometimes, their speeches don't solve everything. Sometimes, their speeches are just not very good! Sometimes, they back the wrong horse in elections. Remember that time the White House got embroiled in the Specter-Sestak primary, and they tried to support Specter? What a bungle that was, the way they got behind the senator who provided the difference-making vote in enacting the agenda that Harris and VandeHei note was successfully enacted!

None of this is exactly unprecedented in American life. The editors note that a "lot of attention was paid to how Obama surrounded himself with powerful and skilled personalities in his Cabinet." Well, I'm guessing that the big problem here is that the quality of "attention" paid to all that personality-driven coverage of the Cabinet was just not very good!

Finally, we get to the part where they decry the "liberal echo chamber," their complaints, and the "disproportionate influence" it has "on perceptions." Liberal blogs: they have criticisms!

The liberal blogosphere grew in response to Bush. But it is still a movement marked by immaturity and impetuousness -- unaccustomed to its own side holding power and the responsibilities and choices that come with that.

So many liberals seem shocked and dismayed that Obama is governing as a self-protective politician first and a liberal second, even though that is also how he campaigned. The liberal blogs cheer the fact that Stan McCrystal's scalp has been replaced with David Petreaus's, even though both men are equally hawkish on Afghanistan, but barely clapped for the passage of health care. They treat the firing of a blogger from the Washington Post as an event of historic significance, while largely averting their gaze from the fact that major losses for Democrats in the fall elections would virtually kill hopes for progressive legislation over the next couple years.

I'm a bit astonished that there's no mention of the "right wing echo chamber," and the "immaturity and impetuousness" that boils forth from a side unaccustomed to not holding power, and which also has had a "disproportionate influence on perceptions." Is it possible that Harris and VandeHei have never heard of "death panels?" Did they not catch that time where the president's innocuous first-day-of-school message to America's schoolchildren was greeted by unhinged braying about socialist indoctrination? Were they out at a long lunch, with anonymous sources, when a proposed measure to create a fund, paid for by banks, for the purpose of dismembering failing financial institutions in order to forstall systemic risk to the economy somehow got sold by the right wing echo chamber as a "bailout?"

Those things actually happened. As for this whole matter where "liberal blogs cheer the fact that Stan McCrystal's scalp has been replaced with David Petreaus's, even though both men are equally hawkish on Afghanistan" -- well, that strikes me as something that Harris and VandeHei just made up out of whole cloth. I'm prepared to be wrong about this, but still: a link, s'il vous plait?

Also, I'm terribly amused by this whole premise, that Dave Weigel's resignation from the Post actually caused anyone's gaze to be averted from the midterms. It seems to me that everyone involved in covering the Dave Weigel situation largely succeeded in doing so without dropping the work they were doing on all other matters. (By this logic, the 2010 World Cup and the season finale of "Lost" were also things that prevented bloggers from being cognizant of the midterm elections.)

Greg Sargent does a masterful job in decimating this part of Politico's claim: "The liberal blogs I read have spent months now engaged in deep debate about the midterm elections, the best ways to limit losses, and what the consequence for the progressive agenda will be if Dems don't figure out how to pull themselves out of their doldrums."

Sargent continues:

It's one thing to criticize liberal bloggers for having unrealistic expectations, given whatever we're supposed to agree represents "reality" in Washington. I don't happen to agree with that argument. Many liberal bloggers are advocates and activists. They are supposed to push the White House and Dems in a more liberal direction, even if it doesn't always pay off. That's their function as they've defined it. But reasonable people can disagree about how realistic the liberal blogosphere's expectations have been.

However, to make the argument that liberal bloggers have their heads in the sand about Dem losses this fall is just flat out false. All VandeHarris are revealing is that they don't regularly read liberal blogs...

Emphasis mine, because wow: Three years in, and Politico still doesn't have the slightest idea what pundit-bloggers on the left actually do!

I'm pretty sure that by now, you've figured out that despite the fact that Harris and VandeHei have managed to hold forth for a long while on the obvious -- the White House is facing losses in the midterms -- they haven't managed to figure out a means by which things could have gone differently. Remember, the editors state upfront that the White House has "moved swiftly toward achieving the very policy objectives he promised voters as a candidate." So what's the solution? Don't do the things he promised as a candidate? Deliver a better oil spill speech? Use the "Internet kill switch" to shut down all discussion of Dave Weigel?

The president brought an agenda to Washington that had the support of voters. It was subjected to a lot of crazy fearmongering that the media elevated to the level of the truth. It was opposed by a party that reasoned that they could achieve big gains just by mindlessly obstructing everything. It was watered down by nervous Democrats and dagger-eyed interest groups. And so, while the agenda has been advanced, it doesn't live -- yet -- in some perfect form.

And bloggers and pundits have a robust debate about these things. Like say, Eric Alterman, who simply points out the non-controversial fact that there are structural impediments to perfection. Like I said, you could have learned this by reading Alterman's piece. But John Harris and Jim VandeHei hope that you don't -- and have done what they can to prevent you from doing so! -- because if you did, you might realize that their intention here is to make your head as empty as theirs.

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