Michael Grunwald has written one of those articles I suggested yesterday we’d be seeing a lot of over the next year: a review of President Obama’s record. The title and subtitle tell you a lot about his particular take on the issue: The Nation He Built: A Politico review of Barack Obama’s domestic policy legacy – and the changes he made while nobody was paying attention. It is a very deep dive into – not only the headline policy accomplishments of this administration – but the ones that are rarely acknowledged.
This article is a must-read for anyone who is interested in being informed about the Obama presidency. But I want to focus on the question Grunwald raises at the end. That’s because it is a question that has come up often in conversations I’ve had with my own “political junkie” friends.
If the Obama brand of change is so great, why haven’t more Americans embraced it? Does he have a larger “Everything’s Amazing, Nobody’s Happy” problem?
Let’s first of all take a look at the possible answers to that question that Grunwald identified. Here’s what White House aides said about it:
When I put this to Obama’s political aides, they acknowledge everything isn’t amazing, especially middle-class wage growth, but they also say plenty of Americans are happy. The president’s approval ratings are hovering just below 50 percent, better than any 2016 candidate’s in this era of rigid partisan polarization.
He then notes what President Obama himself said about this in an interview with Bill Simmons.
…Obama blamed this on bad salesmanship, saying he wished he had communicated better early in his presidency. “I think a certain arrogance crept in, in the sense of thinking as long as we get the policy ready, we didn’t have to sell it,” Obama said. “One thing I learned through some tough election cycles: You can’t separate good policy from the need to bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Finally, Grunwald proposes his own theory.
But one possibility, a troubling one for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, is that Obama’s activist policies poll badly because people just don’t like them…
In domestic affairs, however, Americans often react badly to promises to Do More. They seem to suspect that when government acts, it’s probably acting to help someone else.
Because answers to these kinds of questions are always more complex than we usually allow, I suspect that there is a lot of truth in all of these. But I’d like to add one that Grunwald didn’t mention: the role of the media.
In order to understand the role the media has played, I’m going to oversimplify some changes we’ve seen over the last few years. What we have right now is what some people call the “mainstream media,” which consists of the major news networks and big print/online publications, combined with the proliferation of what might be called “partisan” media.
Pundits in the mainstream media see it as their job to challenge politicians – especially the president. So they focus on poking holes in whatever an administration says. As an example of how those assumptions about the role of the mainstream press have permeated coverage of the White House, here is how Howard Kurtz described his reaction to President Obama’s end-of-the-year press conference last year when he called only on female reporters.
I’m not saying the press has to be prosecutorial toward the president. But a full-dress news conference is a rare chance to ask aggressive questions that are honed to knock the commander-in-chief off his talking points. A correspondent can even do something as basic as quoting a Republican critic and asking the president to respond. But there was none of that.
There is nothing wrong with what Kurtz is describing. But it restricts the questioning/reporting to political rather than policy discussions. The political angle is what currently consumes our mainstream media.
It is easy to see the role that right wing media plays in all of this. They are constantly screaming about what a failure President Obama is and how government is all about giving freebies to “those” people. But what about liberal media/pundits? A lot of them get consumed with screaming back at the ridiculous things Republicans say/do. But they are also often populated by pundit/activists who see it as their job to “hold the administration’s feet to the fire.” In doing so, they react negatively to what Keith Humphrey’s called “airing clean laundry” and fall into the trap Marilynne Robinson captured with this:
Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.
So the real question becomes: where do everyday Americans go to actually hear about President Obama’s policy accomplishments? The pickings are few and far between. That has played a huge role in the problem of perception vs reality.