On the night of September 10, hours before President Obama addressed the nation about developments surrounding the crisis in Syria, NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams huddled with Meet The Press host David Gregory to analyze the day's top story.
Events were moving quickly. After weeks of Obama threatening to use military strikes against Syria in the wake of President Bashar Al-Assad being accused of gassing his own people with chemical weapons as part of a "massive attack," a sudden diplomatic opening had appeared. Rather than bombing Syria, the United States might be able to work with Russia and get Syria to voluntarily hand over its chemical weapons.
Good news? Not necessarily according to Williams and Gregory. "What has the president gotten himself into here?" Williams wondered, suggesting the prospect of a diplomatic resolution represented a setback for Obama. Gregory agreed. What the president had gotten himself into was, "A real mess: bad sequencing, disorganization, a sense of, a lack of real focus and strategy for what the U.S. wants to do in the world."
Just four days later, a plan crafted by the United States and Russia's Vladimir Putin to rid Syria of its chemical weapons by next year was announced. So much for the "real mess" the White House had created.
So far, no American bombs have been dropped on Syria, not one American soldier has died in fighting there, and no Syrian civilians have been killed by U.S. forces. But that hasn't stopped the chattering class from eviscerating Obama, often with a mocking and condescending tone. Deeply invested in the Obama's-stumbling storyline that was attached to the president's initial call for bombing strikes, pundits and reporters failed (or refused) to adjust as the facts shifted and the crisis steered toward a diplomatic resolution.
The Syria coverage represents a clear case of the press adopting style over substance, as well as channeling Republican spin. Of treating foreign policy as if it were a domestic political campaign and insisting that a story unfolding half-a-world away was really all about Obama and how it affected (and/or damaged) his political fortunes. It was also coverage that often lacked nuance and context, and that refused to allow diplomatic events unfold without minute-by-minute surveys of the domestic winners and losers.
Six months ago, who would've thought that given the chance to get Assad to give up his weapons, that achievement would be portrayed in the press as a foreign policy "fiasco" for the White House? (A sampling of pundit-class descriptions of Obama's Syria performance: "head-spinning reversal," "flaccid," "stuck in a box," "confused, erratic," "debacle," "embarrassing spectacle.")
Meanwhile, two weeks ago, with the prospects dim of Obama winning a Congressional vote to authorize military strikes, it seemed the only option that would save him from political doom at home, and head off the rush among commentators to announce the demise of his second term, was some sort of last-minute diplomatic push to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to postpone a Congressional war vote, thereby letting the White House avoid a potentially embarrassing defeat.
What happened? Basically that exact scenario unfolded. Yet the Beltway press claimed Obama had really blown it. He'd been "played by Putin"! Why the failing marks on Syria? Because Obama went about it all the wrong way. (Americans didn't seem to mind.) The process was botched. It looked clumsy, according to a legion of Beltway theater critics.
Pressed, lots of pundits agreed that the end result was for the best, and that getting Assad to both finally acknowledge his chemical stockpile, and to agree to dismantle the arsenal were positive developments. But that concession was eagerly overridden by the media complaint that Obama said the wrong things, and looked the wrong way. That he's an "over-thinker" guilty of "mind-changing." (Flexibility is bad.)
And now, we're told the Syria "fiasco" is eroding Obama's second term. He's "floundering," reported The Hill, insisting his poll numbers are "falling." They're "flailing," stressed the Guardian. Not to get lost in the polling weeds, but while Obama's approval rating is down slightly from January, his Gallup approval rating, for example, currently stands at 45 percent. That's virtually identical to his approval rating 12 months ago, 24 months ago, 36 months ago, or even 48 months ago.
The portrait that the Beltway press is painting of the Obama presidency in free fall simply does not match reality. But it's the story lots of journalists want to tell.
What's been telling is how the media taunts from the Beltway's mainstream have often been just as loud as the condemnations from Fox News. Indeed, it's been the established, elite media voices that have expressed unvarnished disdain for the potentially peaceful resolution in Syria:
Politico: "Barack Obama's unsteady handling of the Syria crisis has been an avert-your-gaze moment in the history of the modern presidency.
Time's Joe Klein: "It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I've ever witnessed."
Bloomberg: "Obama's Syria Meanderings Border on Incompetence"
National Journal; "He was trying to hasten into oblivion a foreign-policy week from hell."
Has the chattering class made itself perfectly clear? Obama's ability to strike a deal with the Russian government to convince a Middle Eastern dictator to begin handing over his arsenal of chemical weapons represents an unmitigated disaster for the White House and it's "a terrible setback for America." Why? Because the process was all wrong.
No matter how many times you re-read that premise, it's never going to make any sense. (An international disarmament agreement is a bad thing?) But that's the story D.C. pundits have been peddling all month.
Crossposted at Media Matters for America.