Mark Halperin wants a prom king, not a president


In assessing Barack Obama's first year in office, Time's Mark Halperin bungles basic facts while making illogical claims about the president's failure to meet irrelevant goals.

Reading Mark Halperin's assessment of Barack Obama's first year in office, one thing is immediately clear: The silliness of his criteria is matched only by his inability to properly apply them. The problem isn't just that Halperin assesses Obama's attainment of Halperin's remarkably shallow goals; it's also that the Time editor-at-large has no idea what he's talking about.

Take, for example, Halperin's third sentence: "His approval ratings have fallen, and ideologically, liberals seem almost as unhappy with Barack Obama as do conservatives." Even allowing for a certain amount of hyperbole, that's absolute nonsense. In Gallup's polling at the end of the year, 89 percent of liberal Democrats approve of Obama's job performance, compared to 10 percent of conservative Republicans.

Now, let's look at Halperin's lists of the five things Obama is doing better and worse "than you realize." The number one thing Obama is doing well, according to Mark Halperin, is "Letting the co-equal branch do the heavy lifting." And the number two thing Obama is doing badly is "Driving the policy process." Those two things sound like opposite sides of the same coin, yet Halperin doesn't appear to notice. And he writes that by letting Congress do the heavy-lifting, "Obama has gotten much of what he has wanted out of Congress," which would seem to undermine the claim that Obama is doing a poor job of driving the policy process. It looks like Halperin was confused about whether Obama has been able to drive policy, and just decided to argue both sides -- each without acknowledging the other -- and hope nobody noticed.

Then there's the vapidity of Halperin's third Obama shortcoming: his purported difficulty in "Wooing Official Washington." At first glance, that may seem like a legitimate concern. After all, if "official Washington" -- diplomats and senators and generals and committee chairs and whatnot -- aren't on Obama's side, it will be hard for him to get anything done. But that isn't what Halperin means by "official Washington." No, he means journalists and pundits and Georgetown party-goers. He means, basically, him and his pals:

[P]olitically and personally, the First Couple and their top aides have shown no hankering for the Establishment seal of approval, nor have they accepted the glut of invitations to embassy parties and other tribal rituals of the political class. In the sphere of Washington glitter, the Clintons were clumsy and the Bush team indifferent, but the Obama Administration has turned a cold shoulder, disappointing Beltway salons and newsrooms whose denizens hoped the über-cool newbies would play.

Halperin's attempt to put Obama's purported failing in historical context just shows the emptiness of this complaint: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush won second terms despite their clumsiness and indifference towards the cocktail scene, which suggests that keeping Sally Quinn happy isn't all that important.

But Halperin's next criticism of Obama -- that he hasn't succeeded in "Changing the tone in Washington" -- is even sillier. First, Halperin, like much of the Beltway media, overrates the importance of bipartisanship. They often see it as a goal in and of itself -- as though a single mother struggling to pay for her kids' health care gives a damn whether reform passes on a party-line vote. But even if we stipulate, for the sake of argument, to the importance of bipartisanship, Halperin's argument fails badly.

Halperin traces the origin of Obama's purported failure to his refusal to pursue a bipartisan stimulus passage:

Once the new President cast his lot with his party in passing an economic-stimulus measure rather than seeking bipartisan agreement, rival Republicans started digging in.

That simply is not what happened.

What actually happened is that President Obama bent over backwards soliciting Republican support, but the GOP rebuffed him even as he and congressional Democrats filled the stimulus package with $288 billion in tax cuts in an effort to woo them. What actually happened is that the President and Congressional Democrats passed a stimulus package that was much smaller than many economists thought was necessary, in part because they wanted to win support from Republicans who said they were concerned about the size of the bill. What actually happened is that Republicans refused to vote for the bill anyway, and the alternative they offered was completely -- 100 percent -- tax cuts.

And yet Halperin says (repeatedly) that President Obama was the one who failed to seek bipartisan agreement. That is the exact opposite of what happened. This is not a matter of interpretation; it is a matter of clear facts. The Republican proposal consisted entirely of tax cuts. That happened. It's a fact. The Democratic stimulus package included a mix of tax cuts and spending. That happened. It's a fact. When Mark Halperin says it was Obama and the Democrats who refused to seek bipartisan agreement, he is demonstrating that he is either so woefully uninformed about basic facts or so blatantly dishonest that, in either case, he cannot be taken seriously.

But Halperin doesn't merely fail on factual grounds. His arguments fail basic tests of logic and common sense as well:

Obama's aides continue to blame the Republicans for refusing to play ball, but the buck stops with the President, whose paths to success on issues such as climate control, jobs and education are all narrower because of a partisan bitterness that rivals that of the Clinton and Bush eras.

No. The buck cannot stop with the President; not when it comes to bipartisanship. The reason should be fairly obvious: The attainment of bipartisanship cannot be the responsibility of only one party.

Imagine that you have two children, 7 and 10 years old, and that they bicker constantly. You want them to stop, so you tell them they have to get along. And you tell the 10-year-old that it's her responsibility for them to do so: If they continue to bicker, the buck will stop with him, and she'll be grounded. What does that do? That gives the 7-year-old license to behave as badly as he wants. He can refuse to share his toys with the 10-year-old, while demanding access to all of hers. And the 10-year-old must either capitulate entirely, or be grounded.

That's the position Halperin's formulation puts President Obama in: Capitulate entirely, or be blamed for the failure of bipartisanship. The only way he can avoid blame, in Halperin's warped little world, is to allow the minority party to run the show. That just doesn't make any sense -- and even if it did, it certainly wouldn't be "bipartisanship."

When you combine Halperin's complaint that the Obama administration doesn't hang out with him and his pals enough with his fetishization of bipartisanship, you begin to get a picture of Halperin's idea of a successful presidency: one in which all of Washington gets along during the day and hangs out together at the same parties every night.

Basically, he wants senior year on Saved by the Bell. And he's looking for a prom king, not a president.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.

Mark Halperin
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