Will the press ever give Obama tough coverage?
President Obama never disappoints. When the monthly unemployment rate fails to drop, forget it. What’s important is the number of jobs created. But when the rate actually does drop, forget the growth (or lack of it) in jobs. It’s the rate that matters. And don’t blame Obama for the persistence of slow economic growth and high joblessness. That’s the “new normal.” As for the millions of dropouts from the job market, that’s no big deal, hardly worth more than a passing mention.
Full credit is due Obama for his role in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. He was cleverly “leading from behind.” But the killing of the American ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi—the president bears no responsibility for that. Perish the thought.
Meanwhile, in the months before his reelection in November, Obama doled out government favors to Democratic interest groups like unions, Hispanics, teachers, and single women. This may have looked like shameless exploitation of his high office, but it really was unusually skillful politicking by a master of the game.
My drift here ought to be obvious. I’m referring to the way the media treat Obama. It’s not always adoring. It’s intermittently fair and even-handed. But overall, what’s distinctive about the press coverage of Obama is the absence of fault-finding, criticism, and dogged questioning. And when Obama makes excuses, as he often does, the media tend to echo them.
No president in my lifetime has been covered so favorably and so gingerly. Never has the press corps been so unwilling to pursue stories that might cast the president in an unflattering light. As a group, the media pride themselves on taking an adversarial approach to politicians and government officials. But in Obama’s case, the press acts like a helpmate.
Along with that, the media seem fearful of offending Obama. This is a new phenomenon in presidential coverage. To my recollection, Obama is the first president to instill coverage anxiety, conscious or unconscious.
Compare Obama’s coverage with that of President George W. Bush. The difference is startling. There was no fear of affronting Bush. He faced relentless scrutiny of his tactics in the war on terror: wiretaps, renditions, Guantánamo, the Patriot Act. The media raised questions about his motives, the constitutionality of his policies, and his brainpower. White House press conferences became tense and hostile events when national security issues were broached.
Obama’s adoption of these same policies has drawn minimal attention, much less the kind of media wrath that Bush endured. Last week, for example, Obama signed a bill extending the use of warrentless wiretapping to gather intelligence on America’s enemies. Bush was harshly criticized by the media on this very issue. Obama got a pass.
Bush was also hassled for so-called signing statements citing provisions of a bill he might not enforce. Charlie Savage, then of the Boston Globe, won a Pulitzer Prize for “his revelations” about Bush’s practice. And, not surprisingly, Obama promised not to do signing statements. Yet he has continued the practice, eliciting some coverage, but none of the outrage that was directed at Bush.
In his efforts to combat terrorism, Bush was accused of exceeding presidential authority. But Obama has made recess appointments when the Senate wasn’t in recess and rewritten parts of immigration and welfare law by executive order, clearly stretching his authority beyond constitutional limits. The press praised the immigration change and winked at the others.
It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with actions that would have aroused the press if committed by Bush, but didn’t with Obama. The list is long. Both the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal and the Benghazi killings would have led to months of stories, investigative reports, and outraged commentary. But the media proved to be largely incurious in Obama’s case.
Hurricane Sandy created damage in the billions in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The role of Obama and his administration in handling the emergency was scarcely addressed. It’s doubtful Bush would have been let off so easily. He certainly wasn’t in 2005 after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.
What if Bush had claimed in speech after speech that Democrats who opposed his policies were putting “party before country”? The media response to an insinuation that Democrats were unpatriotic would have been along the lines of, “How dare the president make such a dastardly claim!” But repeated mentions of “party before country” by Obama have been treated as perfectly acceptable.
And what if Bush had insisted on selective enforcement of federal immigration law and refused to defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton? Or if the Bush White House had leaked highly classified national security intelligence to make the president look good? The press would have been in high dudgeon and rightly so. But Obama, guilty on both counts, received media immunity.
Broken promises are the least of Obama’s shortcomings. But the press corps loves to zing presidents for reneging on campaign vows. Obama, as I recall, promised a press conference a month, an immigration bill his first year in office, regular meetings with leaders of both parties in Congress, and unprecedented transparency throughout his administration. He kept none of them, prompting media near-silence.
Might the treatment of Obama harden in his second term? I’m moderately hopeful. I suspect a few in the media are privately embarrassed by the oh-so-soft coverage and would like to apply some accountability to the Obama presidency. If they do, they’ll discover Obama disappoints like other presidents and perhaps more often.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.