Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe just days before the looming deadline for a federal government shutdown, Politico's Mike Allen was assessing the politics of the controversy and predicting which Beltway players would get tagged with the blame for the intentional legislative debacle. Despite the fact that Republicans were refusing to fund the government if the White House balked at the demand to essentially repeal its 2010 health care law, Allen suggested President Obama would be the real political loser.
Why Obama? Because he's more famous than the GOP congressional leaders whose actions are causing the impasse.
"A lot of people in the country don't know John Boehner. There's no one in the world who doesn't know Barack Obama," Allen explained. "So when Washington is not working, it's going off the rails in a very visible way, a way that is vivid and touches people, that's not good ultimately for the president."
That's an awfully tenuous path to blame Obama for the Republicans' proudly obstructionist strategy to stop funding the government.
Yet so it goes within portions of the Beltway press corps who are straining to include Democrats in the shutdown blame game; to make sure "both sides" are targeted for tsk-tsk scoldings about "Washington dysfunction," and that the Republicans' truly radical nature remains casually ignored. This media act is getting old. And this media act may be emboldening the Republicans' extreme behavior.
Note that unlike the government shutdowns during the Clinton administration, this one was not prompted by a budgetary disagreement between the two parties. It was provoked by the GOP's unheard of demand that in order to vote for government spending they agree is necessary, the White House had to strip away funding for its health care law. Also note that the looming showdown over the debt ceiling represents another orchestrated crisis in which the GOP is making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for their votes for a policy they say they support. Both cases illustrate the folly of trying to blame the White House for failing to engage with Republicans, who have embraced a path of purposefully unsolvable confrontations.
What's been clear for years is that the press clings to its preferred storyline: When Republicans obstruct Obama's agenda, the president's to blame for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior. In other words, "both sides" are to blame for the GOP's radical actions and the epic gridlock it produces.
The media lesson for Republicans? There's very little political downside to pushing extremism if the press is going to give the party a pass.
When President Obama signed his landmark health care reform bill into law on March 23, 2010, the ceremony seemed to mark the finish line to what had been a wildly tumultuous legislative process. Featuring the Lie Of The Year, which suggested that health care reform would include ominous and non-existent "death panels," the Republican effort to block the bill had been all-consuming. And it was aided by a misinformation effort closely orchestrated by Fox News and the conservative media.
The signing ceremony however, turned out to be only the beginning. Republican and conservative forces launched guerrilla warfare against the new law, making every effort to thwart its implementation. In Congress, lawmakers repeatedly threaten to cast votes to defund and delay the health law. At the state level, Republican governors are trying to obstruct the law's new insurance marketplaces, which are set to roll out October 1. And well-funded groups are even trying to convince Americans they don't really need health insurance.
To date, Republicans have failed to stop the bill from being passed into law, were unable to convince the Supreme Court that the law was unconstitutional, and they failed miserably in their attempt to vote Obama out of office last year.
But it seems all of that obfuscation served as a precursor for the hailstorm of lies and misinformation that have erupted leading up to October first. The desperation emanating from Fox News and other far-right quarters has been inescapable, including claims that:
There's nothing wrong with being passionate and dedicated to a cause. But the right wing's almost hypnotic, monomaniacal focus on opposing health care reform has been matched, if not outstripped, by its relentless desire to purposely lie about the new law year after year after year. That's not passion, that's propaganda. It's using mass media to spread willful lies and misinformation about public policy in hopes of advancing your own partisan cause. Lies like:
The permanent misinformation model built to try to tear down Obamacare has troubling implications for future policy fights. Just as the Republicans' radical attempt to shut down the entire federal government in an effort to defund an existing law has no precedence in modern American history, the accompanying four-year propaganda campaign is likely unmatched, too.
On September 16, the day of the Navy Yard gun massacre in Washington, D.C, White House spokesman Jay Carney took questions from assembled journalists when CNN's Jim Acosta asked about the shooting rampage, where a gunman killed 12 people.
"Navy Yard, Newtown, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood," Acosta said, ticking off a list of recent mass shootings in the United States. "Is the President concerned that his administration will be marked by an inability to resolve this issue of mass shootings?"
Huh? Obama's to blame for not stopping mass shootings?
The fact is that following last December's gun massacre at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, and after becoming the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and reelection with 51 percent of the vote or more, Obama made gun violence a top legislative priority. "Obama and Biden gave more than 30 speeches, interviews and online chats, oftentimes with families of gun victims at their side," according to McClatchy newspapers.
First Lady Michelle Obama became actively involved in the gun legislation push. The president personally reached out to Republican members of Congress to press his case, as well as meeting with families from the Newtown shooting, while Obama's political organization, Organizing for Action, held rallies and vigils nationwide to build momentum for legislative action.
In the end, none of it mattered because the vast majority of Republicans refused to support the proposed background check bill, just as the vast majority of Republicans have refused to support virtually any White House initiative since 2009. As Congressional historians Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann recently noted, "Persuasion matters if the people you are trying to persuade have any inclination to go along, or any attachment to the concept of compromise." (Republicans do not.)
What made the gun bill's defeat so shocking was it came in the wake of the haunting school slaying. Plus, according to many polls, more than 90 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers, the central facet of the failed legislation. Yet Republicans threatened a filibuster and refused to allow the bill to proceed.
As Carney patiently explained to Acosta, his question about the political inability to resolve the issue of mass shootings was probably better put to Republican senators, 91 percent of whom voted against the background check bill, and to the larger Republican Party which made universally clear in the wake of Sandy Hook that it would block any attempt by Obama and Democrats to tighten gun laws in America, no matter how many mass shootings unfold on our television screens.
Viewed in a larger context, the strange CNN question revealed more about the state of the Beltway media than it did about Obama's "inability to resolve" gun rampages. It was telling that a reporter sought to assign blame to the person trying to fix the problem of mass shootings, and not to the people standing in the way of that attempt.
A Beltway media truth: The failed gun vote, engineered by obstructionist Republicans, highlights Obama's political shortcomings. A second Beltway media truth: The blocked gun vote reveals little about the state of today's GOP.
On the night of September 10, hours before President Obama addressed the nation about developments surrounding the crisis in Syria, NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams huddled with Meet The Press host David Gregory to analyze the day's top story.
Events were moving quickly. After weeks of Obama threatening to use military strikes against Syria in the wake of President Bashar Al-Assad being accused of gassing his own people with chemical weapons as part of a "massive attack," a sudden diplomatic opening had appeared. Rather than bombing Syria, the United States might be able to work with Russia and get Syria to voluntarily hand over its chemical weapons.
Good news? Not necessarily according to Williams and Gregory. "What has the president gotten himself into here," Williams wondered, suggesting the prospect of a diplomatic resolution represented a setback for Obama. Gregory agreed. What the president had gotten himself into was, "A real mess: bad sequencing, disorganization, a sense of, a lack of real focus and strategy for what the U.S. wants to do in the world."
Just four days later, a plan crafted by the United States and Russia's Vladimir Putin to rid Syria of its chemical weapons by next year was announced. So much for the "real mess" the White House had created.
So far, no American bombs have been dropped on Syria, not one American soldier has died in fighting there, and no Syrian civilians have been killed by U.S. forces. But that hasn't stopped the chattering class from eviscerating Obama, often with a mocking and condescending tone. Deeply invested in the Obama's-stumbling storyline that was attached to the president's initial call for bombing strikes, pundits and reporters failed (or refused) to adjust as the facts shifted and the crisis steered toward a diplomatic resolution.
The Syria coverage represents a clear case of the press adopting style over substance, as well as channeling Republican spin. Of treating foreign policy as if it were a domestic political campaign and insisting that a story unfolding half-a-world away was really all about Obama and how it affected (and/or damaged) his political fortunes. It was also coverage that often lacked nuance and context, and that refused to allow diplomatic events unfold without minute-by-minute surveys of the domestic winners and losers.
Six months ago, who would've thought that given the chance to get Assad to give up his weapons, that achievement would be portrayed in the press as a foreign policy "fiasco" for the White House? (A sampling of pundit-class descriptions of Obama's Syria performance: "head-spinning reversal," "flaccid," "stuck in a box," "confused, erratic," "debacle," "embarrassing spectacle.")
Meanwhile, two weeks ago with the prospects dim of Obama winning a Congressional vote to authorize military strikes, it seemed the only option that would save him from political doom at home, and head off the rush among commentators to announce the demise of his second term, was some sort of last-minute diplomatic push to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to postpone a Congressional war vote, thereby letting the White House avoid a potentially embarrassing defeat.
What happened? Basically that exact scenario unfolded. Yet the Beltway press claimed Obama had really blown it. He'd been "played by Putin"! Why the failing marks on Syria? Because Obama went about it all the wrong way. (Americans didn't seem to mind.) The process was botched. It looked clumsy, according to a legion of Beltway theater critics.
Soon after news broke about the shooting spree at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. -- a gun rampage that claimed the lives of 12 victims -- conservative commentators rushed to blame gun regulations for the carnage. Specifically, they blamed the fact that the Navy Yard is a "gun-free zone," which they suggested meant none of the employees could defend themselves while a madman targeted victims.
The "gun-free zone" argument has become a favorite fallback position for gun advocates in the wake of deadly shooting sprees. Desperate to turn attention away from the epidemic of gun violence in America and shooters' ability to get access to firearms, conservatives insist that if everyone were armed, mass shootings wouldn't occur. (i.e. The "good guys" would stop the "bad guys.") And in terms of shootings on military bases, the universal right-wing truth now is that it's all Bill Clinton's fault because in 1993 he banned guns on military bases, making it impossible for soldiers to respond to eruptions of hostile gunfire. Bases are "unarmed" due to a "Clinton-era law," according to Rush Limbaugh, while killers "pick places where there are no guns."
In reality, the rules on military bases don't ban all guns, which is obvious since among the shooter's first victims were armed security personnel. And those rules were actually issued during the first Bush administration and survived the second, despite their alleged perfidy.
But since Monday, lamenting "gun-free zones" has become the preferred battle cry.
Ten years ago this week, and six months after the United Stated launched a preemptive invasion of Iraq as part of the larger War on Terror, President Bush publicly conceded the administration had "no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with" the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
At the time, polling results showed that after hearing the administration's push for war, a strong majority of Americans were convinced that ties existed between Saddam and 9/11. Indeed, the Bush White House had not been shy about suggesting the Iraq War was, in part, a war of revenge for the attacks of 9/11. (At least one Fox News host still touts the phony claim.)
Those kind of bold prevarications ultimately led to the collapse of Bush's second term. It was the mishandling of the Iraq War that was likely responsible for Bush becoming the most unpopular departing president in American history. (Vice President Cheney's exit approval rating stood at a staggering 13 percent.)
The black eye that Bush applied to the Republican Party seemed permanent.
Now, after years of often-quiet indifference towards the 43rd president, the recent debate over the use of military force against the Syrian government has unleashed a wave of right-wing commentary about Bush's presidency. And surprise! Conservatives loved it.
Claiming they pine for the days of Oval Office decisiveness, far-right pundits have been rhapsodizing about Bush's glory years and especially his star turn as a national security pro who turned away terror, as well as a foreign policy sage who made the Middle East a safer place. (And don't forget, he ran a nonpartisan White House.)
Missing from the collective rewriting of history? Facts. Like the acknowledgement that more than 3,000 Americans died from terror attacks while Bush was in office, and that his Iraq War ranks among the most costly U.S. foreign policy blunders in recent history. (A decade later, Iraq remains besieged by violence.)
Indeed. What's most amazing about the brash rewriting of history is how conservative commentators boldly hold up the Iraq War (!) as an example of the success President Obama should try to emulate when searching for a solution to the Syria crisis. Not only did Bush apparently win the Iraq War, it was a masterful victory.
The confusing alliances continue to pile up as conservative media rush to criticize President Obama's foreign policy with regards to Syria and belittle his call to possibly use military force in the wake of allegations the Syrian government gassed its own people. Faced with the prospect of supporting a president they hate for a living, some formerly hawkish commentators, as well as members of Congress, have suddenly turned dovish and are relentlessly criticizing Obama for his call to use force.
Now with the news that Russia is a key player in a diplomatic initiative embraced by Obama to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to dismantle the country's chemical weapons, another colossal shift has occurred within America's right-wing media. Fox News and much of the conservative media are touting Vladimir Putin as Obama's superior. They're toasting the Russian president's superior smarts, marveling at his macho persona (a "He-Man"), and claiming he's making a fool out of Obama.
Fox security analyst K. T. McFarland this week suggested, "Vladimir Putin is the one who really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize" for rescuing the administration from "the mess" it had created. Ann Coulter appeared on Fox and repeatedly referred to Obama as Putin's "monkey." And yes, Matt Drudge recently touted Putin as "the leader of the free world."
Not surprisingly, Fox News wasn't always so affectionate towards Russia's president, a former KGB agent. And conservative commentators especially didn't feel so warmly about him when a Republican was in the White House.
In fact, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly in 2008 lashed out at America's so-called liberal media for giving Putin too much positive coverage. Specifically, O'Reilly denounced NBC for acting as Russia's "fifth column" in the U.S.; of being secret sympathizers of a foreign government [emphasis added]:
With a network like NBC, Vladimir Putin has a fifth column right here in the good old USA. But most Americans understand that Putin is a villain, a former secret police killer who's intent in imposing Russian influence on border countries.
O'Reilly himself has remained consistent with his disdain for Putin this week. (i.e. He's "a scoundrel.") But as he watches so many of his Fox News colleagues fawn all over the Russian leader, is O'Reilly ready to label the channel another fifth column in the good old USA?
Reading Bob Woodward's recent dissection of previous budget negotiations between Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama, readers got to see just how strong the urge is among Beltway media insiders to blame both sides for failed efforts in the past. In the case of Woodward, the urge is so strong it overtakes his own reporting.
Woodward's lengthy September 6 piece, headlined "The inside story of how Obama and Boehner negotiate," examined the weeks-long back and forth between Boehner and Obama late last year as the two tried to work out a budget deal to avoid going over the so-called "fiscal cliff." In the piece, Woodward reports how Obama was willing to make key compromises only to have a larger deal scuttled at the last minute.
Yet after detailing how Obama had offered up significant concessions -- concessions his political supporters strongly opposed at the time -- Woodward concluded that a meaningful deal wasn't struck because Obama, along with Boehner, "would not compromise."
In other words, Woodward's analysis doesn't trust Woodward's reporting.
Touted as a detailed telling based on "congressional aides, meeting notes, and budget documents," Woodward's reporting is quite clear about the string of compromises Obama was willing to make.
Woodward's take-away? Obama shoulders half the blame for failing to craft a deal because he failed to "compromise" sufficiently, despite the fact that the main roadblock to a larger compromise was the unrelenting partisanship of the GOP majority in the House.
No surprise perhaps, since with his book last year about budget negotiations, Woodward previously rallied around the both-sides-are-to-blame narrative: "The ultimate problem, the book suggests, was a lack of leadership by both Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama," noted the New York Times review of the book.
This sort of graphic misreading of the facts reflects the long-running press phenomena of ignoring or glossing over the Republican Party's brand of radical obstructionism since Obama became president in 2009. (And then blaming Obama for that behavior.) Much of the negotiation coverage, from the so-called fiscal cliff to sequestration, perpetuates the myth that Republicans are willing and eager partners in governance, it's just that Obama hasn't yet figured out how the get them to cooperate. (It's so obvious!)
He's not leading.
Casting a wide net and always willing to promote whoever will mount attacks against President Obama, conservative commentators have recently reached out all the way to Moscow to embrace their latest champion, Russian president Vladimir Putin. The more he criticizes Obama for wanting to mount military strikes against the Syrian government for gassing its own citizens, the more Putin's comments are cheered by conservatives here.
The newfound affection is downright bizarre considering Russia, and the former Soviet Union, has for decades been the epicenter of right wing suspicion and hostility; the proverbial Evil Empire. And in terms of the current debate regarding Syria, Putin is isolating himself from the international community. As USA Today noted this week, "Russian President Vladimir Putin's strident defense of a Syrian regime that has killed tens of thousands of its people in a civil war that has divided him from many world powers viewing Syria as a humanitarian disaster that demands intervention."
Putin's an outlier with very little international leverage or power. But because he's publicly opposing Obama he's treated as a right-wing folk hero in America. That's how deep the hatred for Obama runs in today's conservative media circles.
Note that late last moth, just hours before Obama addressed the nation regarding Syria, Matt Drudge bizarrely tweeted that "Putin is the leader of the free world."
Putin is the leader of the free world...-- MATT DRUDGE (@DRUDGE) August 31, 2013
Fox & Friends invited former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld onto the program this morning for an unintentionally awkward round of Obama bashing regarding the situation in Syria. (The "so-called commander in chief" is how Rumsfeld mocked the president.) As part of Fox's relentless critique of the president's handling of Syria, and his call for military strikes in response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people, Fox & Friends attacked Obama for moving too slowly.
Twice during the interview, Steve Doocy complained that Obama had previously "delayed" launching the successful attack that captured and killed Osama bin Laden. The fact that Doocy made the point to Rumsfeld, who as Secretary of Defense, could not locate bin Laden for seven-plus years in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, was clumsy at best.
Even more awkward though, was Brian Kilmeade's accusation put to Rumsfeld that the Obama White House had allegedly sent mixed messages to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad [emphasis added].
KILMEADE: Do you blame Assad for getting mixed signals from the very people now asking for war? From the people that once put their hand of friendship out?
Kilmeade wanted to know from Rumsfeld whether a Middle Eastern dictator accused of gassing people had been sent mixed messages from American officials who extended their hand of friendship but now threaten to use military force.
Well, Rumsfeld ought to know: