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In Desperate Search for the Wrong Answer

Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post just penned an op-ed of sufficient blindness to push me out of my blogy silence (yes, blogy silence). He posits a sort of Obama Infatuation where the Press has “largely abdicated its role as skeptical observer.” His key indicator is a Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study that concluded “President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House.” Based on this observation he declares the checks on the President have failed and a runaway presidency is in progress. But is that the only possible answer?

I certainly buy the corollary relationship between a popular president and positive media coverage. It’s not hard to extract from the basic rules that “Media outlets want to sell subscriptions” and “News stories about popular people sell subscriptions” to reach “Media outlets write stories about popular people.” But the analysis can’t stop there. You have to ask yourself two questions: (1) is there a reason why the President is popular, and; (2) is there a reason the press isn’t writing negative stories about a popular president?

Samuelson has a whole list of answers to #2. My personal favorite is “they agree with his agenda (so it never occurs to them to question basic premises).” When has policy agreement ever stopped a journalist from writing a damning story about presidential mistakes? Certainly Bill Clinton enjoyed the same sort of policy alignment with the Washington press corp, but enjoyed no such kid gloves. Samuelson never even tries to address #1.

I propose a different sort of answer to both questions, one that Samuelson could never write in his column. Obama is popular and enjoys positive press coverage because he’s doing a decent job. Past performance is an excellent indicator of future performance. That’s why we give promotions to those who have done well at their jobs, not those who may grand claims about what they are going to do in the future. And by many, many objective standards, Obama is doing well. Even when he has messed up, he’s known the right way to admit his failing and get moving.

Now, let’s compare his first 100 days against the last two presidents. W. Bush came in under a heavy cloud of election uncertainty and a questionable Constitutional ruling. He governed in such an isolated and fiercely conservative manner that Sen. Jeffords left the party, handing control of the chamber over to the Democrats. Clinton came into office without a majority popular vote thanks to Ross Perot. He then also governed in a very closed manner, leading to the eventual failure of health care reform in ‘93 and the disastrous midterm elections of ‘94. Obama came in with a clear and decisive majority vote and has lead the most open and accessible government in the modern era.

Both past presidents came from previous executive positions… in fact, you have to go back to JFK to find a President who was not either elected from the Governor’s mansion or the Vice Presidency. Ironic that Samuelson says the only President who has enjoyed such positive media coverages as Obama was Kennedy. Perhaps, just perhaps, executive bravado isn’t what’s really needed in the White House? Perhaps all it really takes is a steady hand, a strong — yet tempered — ego, and a willingness to work hard on any good policy idea that comes their way. I’m certain that should Obama ever stray from that formula, we’ll see a flood of negative press. But until that happens, I consider it a positive sign that the press has good things to say about a good man, instead of just trying to tear him down.

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