Obama's Bad Week

In the culture of "gaffes and gotchas," are there any good weeks?

Pundits last week were talking about the president's "Bad Week." It was, to paraphrase a now-famous saying by Queen Ellizabeth, a "septem dies horribilis," or "horrible seven days."

We all have bad days and, yes, sometimes they extend into weeks or even months, but it seems that our social media have created a climate in which it is nearly impossible to get away with, or even forgive, simple mistakes. I wonder if this is due to "schadenfreude," which is a German word used to denote the pleasure that one takes in the misfortune of others, or whether it is something even more insidious.

But let's talk first about Obama's week. First, on an episode of Meet the Press, former President Clinton threw the president under the figurative campaign bus with an offhand comment that Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, had a "sterling" business record with Bain Capital. I am not sure whether Mr. Clinton ever got the memo about private equity and how it does actually sometime destroy jobs, or if he just ignored the entire issue, but once the segment aired, it took on a life of its own.

The next day, there came the employment statistics from the federal government which showed that the economy had added just 69,000 jobs in May. It was not the news that President Obama was looking for, obviously, and it gave renewed life to the arguments that the economy had stalled.

Then Bill Clinton -- with his ever-impeccable timing -- came out with another comment that was the direct opposite of the Obama campaign's position when he said that the Bush tax cuts, which favor the wealthiest Americans in such an overt way, might need to be kept in place in order to stimulate the markets. The Republicans seemed to enjoy themselves as Mr. Clinton walked his comments back with great care.

Finally, the president himself made the penultimate mistake when he said -- during a press conference with cameras rolling -- that "the private sector is doing fine." This utterance especially left a number of people, including me, scratching our heads. It seemed that President Obama, himself a master of control and a brilliant orator, had gone off the rails. Unthinkable but true.

As a student of politics, I was interested in dissecting the reasons for this series of events. But as a critic of social media, I was fascinated and, to be honest, somewhat repelled by the reactions to these events. The segments and comments went viral almost immediately and were repeated, mashed up, and disseminated far and wide. There were postings on Facebook and YouTube and individual blogs that were bolstered with links that were carried in tweets. In a sense the genie was let out of a bottle and could not be put back.

And of course the Republicans pounced with 30-second, Web-only commercials that were created in less than a day, and were made the subject of follow-up news stories on the evening newscasts. It was hard to escape the fact that the president was having a bad week. In such an environment, it is impossible to have a do-over, or to follow with a simple, "What I meant to say was..."

Modern communications media have given us the 24/7 news cycle and our technologies -- hand-held video, smart phones, computers and their apps -- have given each of us the power to become our own cable channels and news publishers. To some extent, this means that individuals can rely on more than just mainstream media to get their news of the day. The Internet and social media are a perfect example of the First Amendment in action. There is also a certain transparency that comes with these media that actually are a benefit to democracy as a whole.

But I wonder sometimes what we are doing to our national discourse in an age that celebrates "gaffes and gotchas." Looking back at some of the film footage of President Roosevelt, I wonder about the conspiracy of mainstream media to hide his afflictions from us and why it was perpetuated. It is commonly acknowledged that FDR, arguably our greatest modern president, was in bad health. Plus, he was a paraplegic, having contracted polio in adulthood. Any film or photographs of Roosevelt would have necessarily made reference to his being in a wheelchair or using braces to walk. Had today's media environment existed then, a battery of handheld cameras at the ready and waiting to catch every slip and fall, I suspect that Franklin Roosevelt would have said, "No, thank you!" And we would have been denied his legacy.

I suspect that our social media, as wondrous as they can be and a boon to modern life, are enabling some influencers to create a news environment that is discouraging the best and brightest of us from running for office. We may be paying a price now and in the future for this cynical culture of the "gaffe and gotcha."