Obama, The Press, And the "Leadership" Charade
ERIC BOEHLERTJust days after the government shutdown came to an end, and with public opinion polls continuing to show that the Republican Party paid a grave price for its radical and shortsighted maneuver, Meet The Press host David Gregory wanted to discuss President Obama's failure to lead.
Pointing to a mocking National Journal piece by Ron Fournier, that was headlined "Obama Wins! Big Whoop. Can He Lead?" Gregory pressed his guests about when Obama would finally "demonstrate he can bring along converts to his side and actually get something meaningful accomplished." Gregory was convinced the president had to shoulder "a big part of the responsibility" for the shutdown crisis, due to the president's failed leadership. New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed Obama is at fault, stressing "The question he's never answered in all these years is, 'How do I build a governing majority in this circumstance?'"
Gregory, Brooks and Fournier were hardly alone in suggesting that Obama's a failed leader. Why a failure? Because a Democratic president beset by Republicans who just implemented a crazy shutdown strategy hasn't been able to win them to his side.
In her post-shutdown New York Times column, Maureen Down ridiculed Obama, claiming he "always manages to convey tedium at the idea that he actually has to persuade people to come along with him, given the fact that he feels he's doing what's right." (i.e. Obama's too arrogant to lead.)
And in a lengthy Boston Globe piece last week addressing Obama's failure to achieve unity inside the Beltway, Matt Viser wrote that Obama "bears considerable responsibility" for the Beltway's fractured, dysfunctional status today (it's "his biggest failure") because "his leadership style" has "angered countless conservatives, who have coalesced into a fiercely uncompromising opposition." That's right, it's Obama's fault his critics hate him so much.
Talk about blaming the political victim.
As an example of Obama's allegedly vexing "leadership style," Viser pointed to the fact Democrats passed a health care reform bill without the support of a single Republican. That "helped spur the creation of the Tea Party and a "de-fund Obamacare" movement," according to the Globe. But that's false. The ferocious anti-Obama Tea Party movement exploded into plain view on Fox News 12 months before the party-line health care vote took place in early 2010. Obama's "leadership style" had nothing to do with the fevered right-wing eruption that greeted his inauguration.
The GOP just suffered a humiliating shutdown loss that has its own members pointing fingers of blame at each other. So of course pundits have turned their attention to Obama and pretended the shutdown was a loss for him, too. Why? Because the Beltway media rules stipulate if both sides were to blame for the shutdown that means both sides suffered losses. So pundits pretend the crisis highlighted Obama's glaring lack of leadership.
But did it? Does that premise even make sense? Isn't there a strong argument to be made that by staring down the radicals inside the Republican Party who closed the government down in search of political ransom that Obama unequivocally led? And that he led on behalf of the majority of Americans who disapproved of the shutdown, who deeply disapprove of the Republican Party, and who likely did not want Obama to give in to the party's outlandish demands?
Doesn't leadership count as standing up for what you believe in and not getting run over; not getting trucked by hard-charging foes?
Yet so many pundits are professionally wed to faulting Democrats for Republicans shortcomings that the agreed-up script is that the GOP's stunning implosion meant Obama failed to lead by not brining the two parties together. He wasn't persuasive enough. And if he had just tried a little harder, asked a little nicer, Republicans would've totally come around.
Much of the current leadership commentary is built on the tired trope that Obama "promised" to change the tone and culture of Washington; to break down partisan barriers. And since he hasn't, that's botched leadership. Of course what Obama did do, like virtually every presidential candidate before him has done, is vow to try to change the culture in Washington, and to try to get both parties together.
The fact that Republicans plotted as far back as January 2009 to make it their primary goal to thwart Obama's attempt at bipartisanship, is now used as a weapon against the president under the lazy premise he "promised" to change Republican behavior. By failing to lead, by failing to change Republicans' deeply extremist behavior, Obama must shoulder the blame, goes the faulty Beltway logic.
"Despite polarization, Obama's two predecessors managed to find common ground with their obstinate opposing parties," Fournier recently wrote, in a sentence that almost perfectly encapsulates what's wrong with the trolling about "leadership." It's predicated on a completely outdated premise, which suggests that since previous presidents were able to work, at times, with the opposing party that means Obama should too. And if he can't, that means he's not leading. That claim entirely omits all the context about today's radicalized Republican Party. It entirely omits everything that's happened in American politics since 2009.
For instance, did Obama's predecessors face opponents who launched an unprecedented campaign to scuttle a Secretary of Defense nomination? Did they face political foes who shut down the federal government in a comically doomed attempt to defund a three-year-old law, who didn't blink at denying Americans disaster relief aid, or who obstructed legislation that garnered 90 percent support among voters?
They did not.
When Obama's immediate predecessor was sworn into office, President Bush was soon greeted by liberal Democrat George Miller (D-CA) who promised to help him secure the votes he needed to pass an education bill. And it was liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) who personally guided Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation through Congress.
Memo to media: Thanks to extremist Republicans, that Washington, D.C. world no longer exists, so stop pretending that it does. And stop penalizing Obama for arriving too late to experience it.
Why doesn't it exist? Because Republican re-wrote the rules and pundits keep scoring Obama against the old one. They keep scolding him for not winning over purposefully un-persuadable Republicans.
"We're saying there's a reason Republicans almost certainly can't be won over," noted Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, who regularly pushes back against the media's "leadership" charade. "And that this reason resides not in the failure of presidential persuasion but in basic realities about today's GOP."
Just ask Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). After he defied his party and tried to help get a bipartisan background gun check bill through Congress last winter, he explained its defeat: "In the end it didn't pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it."
And with that, Toomey, a Republican senator, gave away the game. He pulled back the curtain and confirmed how the Republican Party actually functions under Obama: It fights him on every conceivable front, withholding the slightest bit of support not necessarily because of ideology, but because most members do not want to see Obama succeed.
That represents a stunning lack of leadership. And it's not coming from the Oval Office.