Reading what has now become a cavalcade of Beltway pundits, led by New York Times writers, denouncing President Obama for failing to avoid the drastic budget sequestration, and berating him for not "leading" by getting Republicans to abandon their chronic intransigence, I keep thinking back to the earliest days of Obama's presidency when the press concocted new rules regarding bipartisanship.
Specifically, I recall a question NBC's Chuck Todd asked at a February 2009 press briefing as the president's emergency stimulus bill was being crafted in Congress. With the country still reeling from the 2008 financial collapse, and the economy in desperate need of an immediate stimulus shot in the arm, Todd asked if Obama would consider vetoing his own party's stimulus bill if it passed Congress without Republican support.
Todd wanted to know if Obama would hold off implementing urgent stimulus spending in order to a pass different piece of legislation, one that more Republicans liked and would vote for, because that way it would be considered more bipartisan.
I mention that curious Todd query because only when you understand the warped prism through which so much of the Washington, D.C. press corps now views the issue of bipartisanship does the current blame-Obama punditry regarding sequestration begins to make sense, even remotely.
Here's what the prism looks like, and here's what it's looked like for the last four years: Blame Obama for Republican obstinacy. (Or, as a backup: Both sides are to blame!)
And remember, most of the pundits currently taking misguided aim at Obama on sequestration are part of the supposedly "liberal media" cabal, the one that conservatives insist protect Obama at any cost.
As key observers have noted in recent days, the facts on sequestration are not in dispute: Obama has made repeated offers to meet Republicans in the middle with a proposed deficit reduction plan built around a mix of spending cuts, reform to entitlement programs, and revenue increases. Republicans have countered by saying they will not agree to any deal that includes revenue increases. In terms of "leading," Obama has done everything in his power to try to fashion a deal with Republicans. In response, the absolutist GOP has refused to move off its starting point; it's refused to move at all. (Hint: They wanted sequestration to occur.)
So, because Obama, who just won an electoral landslide re-election, wasn't willing to concede to Republicans everything they wanted, the sequester impasse was reached and $85 billion worth of across-the-board spending cuts went into effect. From those facts, too many pundits have rushed in to blame Obama. Why him? Because he hasn't been able to change Republican behavior. He wasn't able to get them to agree to a bipartisan solution.
Question: If you're an obstructionist Republican and the press blames Obama for your actions, why would you ever change your obstructionist ways? Answer: You wouldn't. And they haven't.
Remember, the recently concluded confirmation battle over Chuck Hagel becoming Secretary of Defense wasn't just about the Republicans' unprecedented opposition to the cabinet choice. It was also about the press' ongoing refusal to acknowledge the GOP's radical obstructionism. A refusal that simply encourages more of the same destructive behavior.
Not surprisingly that theme now runs through the sequestration coverage, as pundits and commentators do their best to downplay those obstructionist tactics in order to clear a way at their real rhetorical target: Obama. (Notable exceptions are appreciated.)
My sense of déjà vu on the sequester media mess is especially intense. I noticed this same trend 49 months ago:
If Republicans simply do not want to cooperate in any meaningful way with Democrats, is there anything Obama can do to change that? No, not really. But according to the press, Obama -- and Obama alone -- is supposed to change that mindset.
For four years this nonsensical narrative about how it's up to Obama to change the GOP's conduct has been promoted and celebrated inside Beltway newsrooms. And now all the savvy pundits agree: Republicans' obstinate ways created the sequestration showdown, so that means it's Obama's fault. By failing to lead, by failing to change Republican behavior, Obama must shoulder the blame.
As noted though, the agreed-upon sequester facts are not in dispute. So in order to blame Obama for Republican obstructionism, pundits have been inserting boulder-sized caveats to their illogical writing that ultimately points the finger at the president [emphasis added]:
- "And, of course, it is true that much of the responsibility for our perpetual crisis can be laid at the feet of a pigheaded Republican Party, cowed by its angry, antispending, antitaxing, anti-Obama base." (Bill Keller, New York Times)
- "We have a political system that is the equivalent of a drunk driver. The primary culprits are the House Republicans." (David Ignatius, Washington Post)
- "The great debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 was initiated entirely by the Republicans refusing to do anything." (Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast)
- "Most Republicans in Congress have been utterly irresponsible in this debate." (Washington Post editorial)
But never mind all that. It's Obama's fault that Republicans are the "pigheaded" "culprits" who "initiated entirely" the "utterly irresponsible" debate over sequestration.
Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters for America blog.