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Obama Said to Be "Playing the Media Like a Fiddle"

First Posted: 02/07/11 02:22 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:30 PM ET

Obama Media

In Monday morning's Politico, John Harris and James VandeHei take on the relationship between President Barack Obama and the press for the umpteenth time in a piece called, "How Obama plays the media like a fiddle." It mainly deals with the way Obama has exploited the media's overwhelming fetish for bipartisanship sauce, and as such, it's pretty good in places -- a rare occasion where someone actually tells the truth about the way the political media works.

That said, there are some important omissions, but let's start with the big reveal:

Conservatives are convinced the vast majority of reporters at mainstream news organizations are liberals who hover expectantly for each new issue of The Nation.

It's just not true. The majority of political writers we know might more accurately be accused of centrist bias.

That is, they believe broadly in government activism 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. Governance, in the Washington media's ideal, should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.

In this fantasy, every pressing problem could be solved with a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Sam Nunn and David Gergen that would go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force Base for a week, not coming back until it had a deal to cut entitlements and end obesity.

Ha, yes. This is all quite true. (Politico should know, considering they upped their ante in the same direction when they hired Michael Kinsley and Joe Scarborough to write well-meaning op-eds about their well-meaning feelings.) What's more, VandeHarris seem to understand that the way the political press places a value on Centrism Marm tends to leave out any discussion or analysis as to whether we actually get good policy from our willingness to broker these "let's all agree to get along" deals:

Obama is taking advantage of the press's bias for bipartisan process, a preference that often transcends the substance of any bipartisan policy.

Typically, the way "bipartisanship" works is that one side of the debate, say, proposes X dollars for a program. Rather than discuss the real-world value of allocating those dollars, the debate instead turns to one where it's explained that if half of X dollars get allocated, the measure would get more votes. The actual effects of slashing the allocation in half are never taken up -- the mere fact that one can get 80 votes in the Senate rather than 51 is a virtue that makes the press celebrate this policy as wise. Anyone taking up the cause of the original allocation, on substantive grounds, is deemed to be insufficiently "serious" about policy.

A fine example of this occurred when Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, as an important swing vote in the Senate, opted to slash various amounts of stimulus spending. The impact that Nelson had on the policy was to make it less effective. On various occasions, he was criticized for his actions, substantively, by Rachel Maddow and Paul Krugman. The political impact of Nelson's decision was to ensure the passage of a less effective stimulus bill. And most of the non-Maddow/non-Krugman media celebrated this as a "centrist victory" that was good for Obama's brand and enhanced his stature.

So, that this is showing up in Politico is something of a breakthrough.

That said, it's important to remember that while I agree with VandeHarris that Obama is skillfully riding out of the deemed-successful-by-all lame duck session -- through his hyper-optimistic State Of The Union address, into this week's Reagan centennial celebration -- in a way that strokes all of the media's "erogenous zones," he couldn't get the media to play that fiddle if he wasn't willing to let the media perform the score they already wanted to play.

See, the media has more or less abandoned a substantive discussion of the effects of policy, because they are -- for a lot of reasons -- averse to the idea of coming down on one side or another. Many Beltway media types don't want to do this, for fear of coming across as biased. The rest literally cannot do this because they lack the chops. That's why when major events happen, like the ongoing revolt in Egypt, most of the political media cannot muster up any sort of analysis beyond how those events will effect everyone's reelection hopes back home.

Rather than spending their time crafting a discussion of how policy decisions will impact ordinary Americans, the media spends their time crafting a "story about politics" that's known as a "narrative." And as you know, any good "narrative" has a lot of twists and turns, and we have arrived at the peak of the storyline that's known as "the Obama comeback." The "Obama comeback" narrative is something that the media has helped to shape ever since the Obama White House hit their low point in the November midterm elections.

The lame-duck period was a catalyst for this, but this had less to do with the substantive work done during that time and more to do with the way everyone could be made to feel about what transpired. It was awesome and bipartisan and stuff actually got done, hooray! But this masked some underlying, underreported realities. Most of Obama's "for the base" accomplishments, while significant, were also wildly popular initiatives. Most Americans, for example, wanted "don't ask, don't tell" to get repealed. That got done. But it didn't plant a seed of momentum for the passage of other progressive agenda items that aren't as overwhelmingly popular over the course of the next year. It's a victory that can be savored, but not replicated.

Compared to DADT repeal, fewer Americans, by far, wanted tax cuts for the wealthy extended -- but those cuts became the "centrism" that got middle-class tax cuts and unemployment benefits passed.

On substance, this was a mixed bag. If the middle class got a dollar in the deal, their kids got a yawning deficit hole that they'll have to pony up a sawbuck to fill. The extension of unemployment benefits was nice, but it's just a battle that will have to be refought down the road. Nobody seemed to notice or care that the White House, after spending two years arguing that they could "save or create" jobs through stimulus, all but capitulated to the GOP frame on the issue -- that jobs could only be created by giving the top 1 percent of income earners a few hundred thousand more dollars each.

By the way, that's a matter that will have to be re-litigated come the 2012 election season, too. And if the White House gets the recovery they want, they'll still have a devil of a time making the case that it didn't come about because the Bush tax cuts on the rich were extended. (That's why I'm pretty confident that the GOP are going to suck it up and live through the "Obama comeback" portion of the narrative with a high level of sanguinity. Chances are, the narrative will come back around to shining favorably upon them before too long.)

So while this piece is utterly spot-on in its diagnosis of the media's centrism fetish, it's important to remember that Obama's recent orchestral successes are not so much a product of his ability to command a performance so much as his shrewd ability to get the media to play an encore of the tune they've already composed.

There's a better example of this that springs to mind, by the way. During the run up to the War in Iraq, the media could not wait to go to war. They could not wait to embed themselves with the war effort. And they could not wait to marginalize their war-critic colleagues as being insufficiently serious -- insufficiently euphonious, really -- about America's great post-9/11 expedition. Those that wouldn't play in the orchestra, well, those are the guys who ended up hovering expectantly for the new issue of The Nation, if they weren't the ones creating it.

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