Bob Woodward may not appreciate how lethal the bullet was he fired at Barack Obama last week. In the last five years of American history, a national journalist contradicting the president about big news—like the origin and impact of the sequester--is a rare, subversive act.
To an astonishing degree since he arrived on the national stage, the national story has been whatever Obama wants it to be, and decidedly not what he doesn’t. If others journalists follow Woodward’s lead, Obama will have to operate in an environment where the major media covers him, instead of fondly echoing him.
Never in American history has a president enjoyed such a circumstantially flexible national reporting corps. When Senator Obama condemned George Bush’s ”unpatriotic” increase in the debt ceiling, the national media happily portrayed the man from Hyde Park as a fiscally responsible reformer. Here was a guy who understood the untenable burden on our children of a $200 billion dollar deficit and a $10 trillion dollar debt. He would fix that!
When candidate Obama promised to comb through the national budget, line by line, eliminating programs that were obsolete, inefficient, or didn’t work, the media swooned over an effective liberal who would restore big government’s credibility.
He railed against lawless surveillance and wiretaps on Americans plotting with enemies overseas. So, national reporters hailed the man who would restore constitutional limits to government, and end the madness.
What a difference winning makes. When the president turned on a dime and ignored all his promises, the national reporting apparatus turned on a dime and changed all its perspectives.
Slog in Iraq for three more years? The man who said he’d end it and bring the troops home immediately was just being responsible. Surge in Afghanistan? It would be senseless to squander our gains, wouldn’t it?
Foreign rendition, surveillance, wiretaps, Gitmo…all still in business. That’s not important.
Improving joblessness; Halving the deficit; Fixing the economy in three years or exit; Not being about Red or Blue, but bringing Americans together; Health reform negotiations broadcast on CSPAN; No lobbyists tainting the most transparent, ethical administration in history.
There was hardly a seductive promise from before that he didn’t happily trample after, to little if any coverage, and even less consequence.
In fairness, Obama’s not the first president to break campaign promises. But his slugging percentage in that regard is very high and the media-referees’ interest in blowing the whistle on fouls and errors is very low.
There isn’t a gotcha, contradiction, lie, or backtrack that much interests them. Ever. The toughest questions he faced in his reelection campaign came from a couple of Univision reporters and a local Denver anchor via cameo satellite hook-up.
Anyone who is old enough to remember the pack of blitzing linebackers that covered the press conferences of Reagan, Bush, or Bush, might be excused for standing gape-mouthed and agog at the bonhomie of Quarterback Obama’s pep rallies, covered by pom pom girls.
“I’ve never seen you lose!” “Why can’t you make those bad Republicans do what you want?!” “What’s your favorite color?”
Let’s be fair again. Issues are complex. They have at least two sides. The administration has strong arguments for its actions.
The problem is, the administration’s argument is the media’s story. The facts and history that matter, the facts and history that should be forgotten, and the critics that should be dismissed, all conform to the White House script. Reality is whatever the president is pursuing today.
Until Bob Woodward called shenanigans on Obama’s sequester narrative.
The president falsely claimed Republicans proposed the sequester. Having just won a big tax increase--unrequited by spending cuts--he gratuitously demanded more tax increases as a pre-condition to discuss how to refine the sequester’s blunt instrument, and he deliberately picked painful, even dangerous cuts, when the modest reductions actually could be managed with little disruption.
Woodward had written a book about Obama’s White House, thoroughly covering the debt and budget debates. He’d reported the president’s role in creating the sequester. So, virtually alone among media bigfeet, Woodward asserted the president was fabricating history, moving the goal posts by demanding more tax increases, and maliciously inflating the sequester’s reasonable impact.
Woodward’s account demolishes Obama’s story and threatens the president at multiple levels. Obama doesn’t like--he’s not used to--the media disputing him. More importantly, he wants to seize the high ground in the ongoing blame game for economic problems.
Four years of blaming Bush for the struggling economy that Obama’s doing his best to strangle have worn thin. But how’s this presidential rant for a new get-out-of-jail-free card? “Every time we get a piece of economic news, we’ll know it could have been better if not for Congress’ failure to act."
After four years of Bush blame, now his mantra is “The sequester ate my recovery!” That’s Obama’s story and he’s sticking to it. And so, he hopes, will the media. If history is a guide, that’s a safe bet.
The cheer squad won’t ask inconvenient questions, like why cutting $45 billion in federal spending this fiscal year will devastate the economy, but Obama’s $264 billion in new taxes for 2013 don’t matter. They won’t explore cause and effect of the administration’s hostility to enterprise and energy, and predictable bad results. They’ll shun like an Amish tramp any mention that the sequester’s cuts are actually just smaller increases in a budget that’s still growing.
In a different universe, with different reporters, all of that might be part of the discussion. Americans might hear more about massive increases in dependency, about inconsistencies and broken promises, about Obama’s bullying to keep reporters in line.
Bob Woodward taking on the president’s phony sequester story hints at what the universe might look like with a free and independent media covering reality instead of putting music to administration lyrics.
Obama and his palace defenders find that prospect outrageous.