Exclusive: The hot new thing in U.S. journalism is to trace the failures of Barack Obama’s presidency to his supposed personality flaws, thus explaining why the unemployment problem has not been solved and why the Democrats are in such a political fix. But this “analysis” is silly, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
President Barack Obama concedes that he is not a perfect man or a perfect president, which is obviously true. Like the rest of us, he makes mistakes and misjudgments. But a new conventional wisdom is emerging that Obama’s personality is to blame for pretty much all that’s gone wrong in America over the past three-plus years.
This narrative holds that Obama’s too aloof, too cerebral, too indecisive, too much of an observer, not enough of a participant; he doesn’t hang out with members of Congress; he disdains hobnobbing with Washington insiders; he doesn’t use his oratorical skills to sell his policies; inexplicably, he’s let his enemies define him.
Maybe, according to this view, his failure can be explained by his confusion over his racial identity and his childhood insecurities, abandoned by his father and often absent from his mother.
This new conventional wisdom assumes that personality is destiny and thus the failure to fix the problems left behind by George W. Bush is the fault of Obama’s flawed make-up; just when the United States needed a mix of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, it got this social misfit. On Sunday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd summed up this viewpoint in a column entitled “Dreaming of a Superhero”:
“The legendary speaker [Obama] who drew campaign crowds in the tens of thousands and inspired a dispirited nation ended up nonchalantly delegating to a pork-happy Congress, disdaining the bully pulpit, neglecting to do any L.B.J.-style grunt work with Congress and the American public, and ceding control of his narrative.
“As president, Obama has never felt the need to explain or sell his signature pieces of legislation — the stimulus and health care bills — or stanch the flow of false information from the other side.”
To unravel this mystery, Dowd references some recent books filled with pop-psychology about Obama, tracing his shortcomings back to his unusual childhood and his identity crisis as a mixed-race child, raised by a white family but seen as a black youth by American society.
Dowd cites Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss, who tracked down a number of Obama’s old chums and girlfriends who offered their insights into his personality and his tendency to deliberate a lot before acting.
“Obama’s caution — ingrained from a life of being deserted by his father and sometimes his mother, and of being, as he wrote to another girlfriend, ‘caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me’ — has restrained him at times,” Dowd writes.
“In some ways, he’s still finding himself, too absorbed to see what’s not working. But the White House is a very hard place to go on a vision quest, especially with a storm brewing.”
Dowd also cites A Nation of Wusses, a new book by Pennsylvania’s former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, wondering how “the best communicator in campaign history” lost his touch. “The administration lost the communications war with disastrous consequences that played out on Election Day 2010,” Rendell writes.
Dowd says, “The president had lofty dreams of playing the great convener and conciliator. But at a fund-raiser in Minneapolis, he admitted he’s just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys. No compromises, just nihilism.”
But is any of this analysis really true? Or is it just the classic desire of jaded Washington insiders to look for superficial character flaws in a politician to explain the systemic failings of U.S. politics, economy – and the news media?
For instance, Dowd ignores the fact that Obama did take risks in office. He pushed for a $787 billion stimulus bill, which – while not enough – was probably all that he could get politically, especially with Republicans dragging their feet on Al Franken’s Senate election in Minnesota, thus denying the Democrats the 60 votes needed to break a Republican Senate filibuster.
Obama took a big risk, too, in bailing out and reorganizing the auto industry, saving General Motors and Chrysler from a chaotic bankruptcy and dissolution. His health-care reform also was a daring political move in which Obama showed respect for Congress by not repeating the mistakes of the Clinton administration’s top-down approach and instead heeding Capitol Hill’s sense of the possible.
Obama worked hard to bring on board Republicans, like Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Indeed, one of Obama’s biggest political mistakes in 2009 was to waste so much time trying to woo Snowe, giving in to her incessant demands that she not be rushed on her health-care decision.
Those delays allowed the Right to organize Tea Party opposition and – not surprisingly – Snowe ultimately joined her Republican colleagues in filibustering the health-care legislation. Fearful of angering the GOP Right, she voted to keep the bill even from reaching the Senate floor. Her opposition also forced Obama to surrender the “public option” as the price for lining up the most conservative Democrats.
And, regarding Dowd’s claim that Obama didn’t use the “bully pulpit” to sell his domestic policies, that simply isn’t true. Obama has taken his message to Congress and out to the country often and eloquently. Remember, it was during one of his addresses to Congress on the health-care law when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, shouted out, “You lie!”
Last year, Obama took his demand for a new jobs bill on the road, traveling to states and districts represented by his Republican opponents and pointing out decaying infrastructure that needed immediate work. His failure to break the legislative logjam wasn’t for his lack of giving speeches.
As for foreign policy, Obama’s key errors were not indecision but in trying not to offend George W. Bush’s loyalists. Instead of kicking out Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Bush’s top commander, Gen. David Petreaus, Obama kept them on as a sign of continuity with Bush’s war policies, even though Obama’s political “base” wanted a dramatic break.
As a further concession, Obama refused to hold Bush or any of his subordinates accountable for their crimes of state, including torture and aggressive war. Given the economic crisis facing the nation – and his hope for some Republican cooperation – Obama shelved meaningful investigations of his predecessor’s wrongdoing.
And when it came to pulling the trigger on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the drone strikes that have slaughtered other al-Qaeda leaders, Obama has been anything but indecisive. Rather than some fretting Hamlet, he has behaved more like a “Dirty Harry” character.
But none of that reality would mesh with Dowd’s preferred narrative of a psychologically-tortured soul sitting in the White House searching for his personal identity, incapable of action or even an ability to explain himself.
A Bigger Problem
What Dowd and other Washington pundits don’t want to acknowledge is that the failings of the Obama presidency have much less to do with his personality flaws than with the corrupt nature of the Washington Establishment, of which they are a part.
It’s easy to blame Obama – or find some “Eureka!” moment in a comment by an old girlfriend. It’s much harder to look into the mirror and recall all the times the New York Times and other major news outlets bent to pressures from Republican administrations and the Right in general.
The pundits don’t want to acknowledge this systemic problem because it would diminish their lofty self-images. Despite all their acclaim and best-selling books, their own weaknesses are a big part of the mess the nation is in.
Over the past several decades — after Watergate and the Vietnam War — the Right built a vast media apparatus to browbeat the mainstream press. And, as mainstream journalists sought to avoid the career-killing “liberal” label, they traded journalistic principles for a little protection. The American Left also shares in this blame, being mostly AWOL in this “war of ideas.” [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
As the U.S. news media retreated from its Pentagon Papers/Watergate glory days of four decades ago, the Republicans also built a potent political attack machine, learning how to bully Democrats with great success. Big money bought clever attack ads – and many of the courageous Democrats were targeted and defeated.
These trends have been underway for four decades but only recently has this reality penetrated the consciousness of the Washington Establishment, finally prompting two committed centrists, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, to detect the reality. They penned a recent Washington Post Outlook article entitled “Let’s just say it: the Republicans are the problem”:
“In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
But that GOP transformation wouldn’t have been possible if there had been serious pushback over the past four decades, if the U.S. press corps had done its job, if Democrats had stood firm in demanding accountability, and if the Left had not closed down or sold off much of its media infrastructure after the Vietnam War was over.
Since that time, a series of miscalculations and acts of cowardice by American journalists, Democrats and progressives have enabled the most corrupt and dishonest elements of the Republican Party to run wild, like a herd of rabid elephants. [For details, see Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep.]
A more difficult truth may be that we, the American people, are collectively at fault for this political/media dysfunction. But it’s a lot easier – and a lot more fun – to blame President Obama for not being a superman who could swoop in and immediately solve all these intractable problems by himself.
Yes, Obama did make mistakes. He can be fairly faulted for not recognizing early that his bipartisan outreach was a fool’s errand, that the likes of Olympia Snowe lacked the courage to buck party discipline, that he would get no credit from the Republicans for giving a pass to George W. Bush regarding his misguided and criminal policies.
But it is a cop-out for Dowd and other pundits to blame the national catastrophe on Obama’s upbringing and character. To do that, Dowd and the others have to create false narratives to deceive the American people.
Thus, their recitation of what went wrong over the last three-plus years leaves out or downplays the fact that Bush left behind economic, budgetary and geopolitical disasters. They also avoid the systemic question of how the Washington Establishment has been complicit in the catastrophes.
Perhaps, Dowd and similar writers just can’t resist the catnip of a narrative based on personality. It’s so much more novelistic than non-fiction truth-telling.
So, gone is the reality that when Obama took office, he faced a collapsing economy, an unprecedented fiscal mess and two open-ended wars. Gone, too, is the evidence that Republicans recognized that their fast route back to power was to delay, block and sabotage every reform that Obama tried to implement, even if that would worsen the suffering of millions of Americans.
Down the memory hole goes the fact that Obama did try to sell his policies – and when he did, many of the same pundits complained about his “partisanship” and his poisoning the well of possible compromise with the Republicans. Now, these pundits fault him for not being more aggressive in taking on the GOP.
The truth is that even a combined reincarnation of FDR and LBJ, mixing FDR’s rhetorical eloquence with LBJ’s arm-twisting savvy, would have failed in the face of the modern Republican opposition and the current American media.
If Republicans from the FDR and LBJ eras had the numbers they do today – and the audacity to filibuster virtually every proposal – Social Security would not have passed, nor would Medicare be a reality today. Those landmark laws succeeded because FDR and LBJ enjoyed large Democratic majorities and/or cooperation from responsible Republicans who put country ahead of party.
Though Roosevelt and Johnson certainly faced their share of press hostility, the pervasiveness of right-wing media was not what it is today, with the impact of right-wing talk radio, Fox News, a multitude of well-funded Internet sites, not to mention the Right’s large stake in the old media of books, magazines and newspapers, including Rupert Murdoch’s print empire.
It’s silly to think that if President Obama had spent more time rubbing shoulders with this breed of Republicans that they would have joined in a national effort to reduce joblessness. From the first moments of his presidency, the Republicans and the Right understood that keeping the jobless rate high was their best hope for reclaiming the presidency in 2012.
But, according to Dowd and similar pundits, it’s all about Barack Obama’s identity crisis and his personality quirks, supported by an imagined history of his presidency, a false narrative that ignores what he actually said and did.
Dowd’s so-clever column should be saved as a perfect example of how the major news media with its fondness for superficiality has failed the country.
[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.