Is the Press Actually Hurting Obama?

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Jul 28, 2008 12:00 AM
Is the Press Actually Hurting Obama?

Even with the “we are the world” euphoria attending Barack Obama’s international tour last week, Democrats have reason to be worried. Europeans may embrace Obama like he’s a rock star, but unfortunately for them – and for his campaign – it’s the American voter who has the final word. And so far, despite the best efforts of assorted elites, the press and the citizens of Europe, he has yet to close the deal with the only audience that really matters.

Even after showering American voters with some of the most dazzling political images ever featured in a presidential campaign, the Real Clear Politics poll average yesterday showed Obama leading John McCain by a lackluster 5%. According to a Quinnipiac poll released on July 24, McCain is figuratively breathing down Obama’s neck in important states like Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota.

Now consider that around this time in 1988, with a similarly enthused Democrat electorate eager to support a “change” after eight years of a President that many of them despised, Michael Dukakis was leading George H.W. Bush by a whopping 17 points in the polls. So what’s going on?

Certainly Obama’s failure to stake a decisive lead can’t be attributed to tough press coverage. Even at its apogee, the Dukakis campaign never dreamed of the kind of media attention – and adulation – that Obama has received. In the primaries, fully 69% of Obama’s coverage was favorable, compared to 43% for McCain, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Likewise, between June 9 (when Obama secured the nomination) and July 13, Obama dominated news reports decisively compared to McCain, Pew/Shorenstein research found. In The New York Times alone, of the 90 Obama stories running between June 4 and July 5, fully 40 of them were positive (and only 13 negative), as noted by NewsBusters’ Times Watch. In contrast, only 9 of the 57 McCain stories appearing during the same period were positive, while 24 were negative. Journalists even favor Obama when it comes to campaign contributions – by a remarkable 20-to-1 margin, according to an analysis in Investors’ Business Daily.

It would seem that the media’s “crisis coverage” of events, in particular economic and environmental issues, would also help Obama. After all, in 1992, the press’ largely uncritical reporting of Bill Clinton’s claim that the United States was enduring the “worst economy in 50 years” went a long way in persuading Americans to choose a young, less experienced and more charismatic national newcomer over a better-credentialed, much better-known opponent.

Certainly, conventional wisdom assumes that when conditions are presented as almost uniformly negative, voters are more likely to take a gamble on the candidate who best personifies “change.” But is it in fact possible that this year, by creating a crisis atmosphere, the press is actually hurting Obama, rather than helping him?

After all, it’s a delicate task to stoke the desire for “change” by amplifying voters’ concerns, without frightening the same voters so much that they decide to stick with a tried-and-true leader. In 1992, the economy was in a trough, but overall, things were good; in particular, no foreign threat lurked in the forefront of voters’ minds. It was an acceptable risk to roll the dice on a relatively untried Arkansas governor, who was largely able to pass the Commander-in-Chief test simply by playing down foreign policy issues. This year, that technique simply won’t work, as Obama himself implicitly acknowledged by taking a foreign tour last week.

In 2008, Americans know soldiers are confronting terrorists abroad and – if they take at face value the often-overheated coverage of economic and environmental news – it seems that their well-being is profoundly threatened at home, as well. At such times, qualities like leadership, experience, character and principle are at a premium. And perhaps that’s why the Obama campaign has reason to be nervous about the results of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just last week.

Sure, it found that people preferred Obama over McCain when it came to "improving America's standing in the world," "being compassionate," "offering hope" and "being likable, easygoing." But on qualities like “being knowledgeable, experienced” and “being Commander-in-Chief,” McCain beat Obama decisively. And by a 20-point margin, Americans consider Obama the “riskier choice” for President.

There’s no doubt that Americans are willing to take risks like electing Barack Obama – but only when it’s prudent to do so. If America is in crisis, as press coverage these days so often suggests, will voters really decide that it’s the time to gamble on an inexperienced President, who will inevitably require on-the-job training? How ironic would it be if – in its zeal to fan the flames of “change” for its golden candidate – the press is actually making his job more difficult?