Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Deanie Mills (TPM Blog):
When George W. Bush took office in January of 2001, Talking Points Memo did not exist.

Huffington Post did not exist.

Buzzflash.com did not exist. (Update: Buzzflash.com did exist, as of May of 2000, the first that I know of.)

Keith Olberman did not yet have a political program on MSNBC.

Rachel Maddow did not yet have a political program on MSNBC.

That Ed guy for sure didn't yet.

However, FOX news, Rush Limbaugh, and many of the other Lords of the Right-Wing Air dominated discourse, drove the political narrative, and basically provided a controversy-free platform for anything and everything the Republican president wanted to do with his Republican congress.

In fact, they made it their business--or I should say, busine$$--viciously attacking anyone who DARED oppose their god and savior, Bush, and his wondrous disciples, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. To disagree even on minor points was to indulge in "Bush-Bashing."

Most people don't remember this, but Bush's first few months in office were so unremarkable that most pundits didn't think he'd last past a first term. Once he and his minions had rammed through massive tax cuts for all their buddies and benefactors, Bush drifted along, musing about Star Wars and privatizing Social Security, while his evil twin, Karl Rove, moved into the West Wing and set about politicizing the entire government.

Once 9/11 happened, the Lords of the Right-Wing Air freaked out along with their paranoid political bosses, sketching nightmare scenarios, shoving wars and rumors of wars down the country's collective throat with nary a voice, except for maybe Al Franken, to stop them.

(Rembember, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them?)

When I first started prowling around, looking for sympathetic sites other than just the DNC, it was during the presidential campaign of 2004, and Talking Points Memo was just getting cranked up. HuffPo didn't exist yet. Buzzflash was already out there, along with a few others, like Media Matters. Keith Olberman had gotten underway.

And of course, Jon Stewart, God bless him.

(This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list, believe me, and I'm not providing links and specific dates because this is just an opening, not the point of the post. I'm getting there. Bear with me.)

As their first term waned, Bush/Cheney and their wars and their spying on Americans had finally awakened a sleeping giant, and the pushback came very near to unseating him that November.

(Stealing Ohio helped. But I digress.)

By 2006 the outrages had spiraled damn near out of control. From New Orleans to Abu Ghraib, there was virtually no part of this planet that had not been royally screwed by that administration in one way or another, and the Internet became, for those of us to the left of the aisle, what talk-radio and television had been for the right in the 90's.

In 2007, when the presidential campaign got underway, opposition to All Things Right-Wing was in full-throated howl, and during the contentious contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I noticed a trend among not just pundits and pollsters and pontificators, but also among politicians--of underestimating Obama.

In the beginning, they positively sneered.

While everyone acknowledged his public speaking gifts, they also mocked them, claiming that his inspirational speeches were "just words" and that he was basically a brash young upstart.

It wasn't racism so much as it was the classic, "Go away, kid. Ya bother me."

I saw it, from the beginning, as a generational showdown. In her final column for Newsweek, Anna Quindlan mentioned something her grown son had said regarding baby boomers in various careers: "You guys just don't quit."

What he meant was that baby boomers were clutching the levers of power in their cold, dead hands, so to speak, and were not letting go so that the next generation could step up and take their places. You see the truth of this in the Sunday morning news talk shows--most of the people sitting around a given table on-set are 50 and over.

Quinlan said she didn't want to be one of those people, so she was letting go so that some bright young voice could take her place. (Although I haven't noticed Newsweek's moving in that direction as of yet.)

Obama's methods of running a campaign were revolutionary, 21st century stuff--that is common knowledge now, and is being mimicked in elections all over the world.

But all through it, time and time again, he was not taken seriously. Even after he finally won the nomination, McCain and his people spoke of him in derisive, dismissive terms.

And when Obama won with a powerful mandate, there was this massive sort of clanking of the old gears of government, oiled by the grumblings of a whole set of congresspeople and senators and governors and lobbyists and--most especially--columnists and op-edders and pundits and pontificators...who just could not seem to believe it.

(So entrenched was this view that the lunatic fringe even invented a scenario where he didn't DESERVE to have the office he'd won in such a hard-fought way, because, after all, he's not REALLY one of us, is he? Not a REAL American, like Sarah Palin. It was all apparently some kind of gigantic conspiracy involving doctors, nurses, and state officials in Hawaii to cover up his fake birth certificate because they somehow knew that the little black baby with a white mama and a father who left town would somehow grow up to be president more than 40 years later.)

But what makes Obama's job so much more difficult, actually, is that Democrats, unlike Republicans, do not march in lock-step with a top-down directive on What to Believe Today.

Instead, they're as likely to shout at each other as they are to right-wingers.

I turned on the "Ed Show" the other day and he was practically spitting in his excitement over health care, saying that if it did not get passed with a public option, that we would need to "form a third party" because this one was too conservative for liberals like him.

I'm not arguing his point one way or the other. I'm simply using it as an example of the broad spectrum of points of view within the Democratic party. Some "Blue Dogs" are actually conservative enough to be Republicans; some moderates can swing either way, and some liberals are just as rabid in their all-or-nothing ideals as the right-wingers are of theirs.

What that means is that, on any given day, you can turn on Glenn Beck over at FOX news and see Obama raked over the coals for being weak on national security or being dictatorial on his domestic plans, and then switch over to Rachel Maddow and see him attacked for being "too much like Bush" in matters of national security or too weak in implementing his domestic program.

Opposite criticisms for the same policies!

In my memory, I've never seen a president under such an assault of constant criticism from all sides, on one thing or another, in all the years I've been following politics. (I have a journal I kept in high school where I was fretting over something LBJ had done, so that's been a while.)

The most amazing thing of all, to me, is that this 24-hour barrage of criticism, complaint, and counterargument has led to a sort of hyper-speed, where time seems to whip past so fast it's in a basic blur. We're all connected, all the time. Texts and Tweets and e-mails and constantly-changing news sites like Huffington Post are now just a touch away on the phones that fit in our pockets, and no matter whether it is a straight news site like the New York Times or a political site like Firedoglake, we are invited to express our opinions on a given matter.

And what that means is that, four months into a brand-new administration, one that inherited such a staggering plethora of constant crises both here and overseas, not seen since FDR took the oath, it seems that, on any given issue, if Obama has not YET fulfilled a campaign promise or brought about a historic and legendary piece of legislation or turned the economy completely around--well then, he's just a failure.

Josh Marshall poked fun of that mindset right after the election when, after 18 months of 24/7 campaign coverage, he took a week off with his family, and returned with a headline that said something like, "OBAMA IS A FAILURE," joking that, in a week's time, he'd already been pronounced DONE by the hyped-up pundits coming down from an adrenaline-rushed campaign-combat high.

So, really, it took the Republicans no time at all to be pronouncing his entire presidency a dismal failure--even before that first, arbitrary 100-day deadline had passed.

In that time, Obama signed a cascade of landmark legislation dealing with every kind of issue you can name, but they passed in a blur with little notice before the next big controversy.

Some say he has brought this on himself by insisting on time constraints for so many of the staggering problems facing this nation.

I mean, geez, it's so cruel and unusual, the punishment visited on congress--why, under Bush, they only had to work three-day weeks. NOW they've actually got to show up some weekends! The horror! The horror!

So he gets criticized for moving too slowly on some issues, too quickly on some, for doing too much and not doing enough, for being too weak and too strong on the same issues, and time and again, I read these snide op-eds or blogposts about how he's already blown it.

They're even claiming that the poor hapless voters who put their trust in this man are somehow already suffering from "buyer's remorse."

(Oh yeah. IF ONLY we'd put John McCain and Sarah Palin in office instead! I hear that all the time, don't you?)

It has been said that Obama plays chess while the rest of us play checkers; this is true, but inadequate to explain his methods completely. There are two articles I've seen today that provide a whole new perspective on Obama's method of governing.

One really strikes a nerve on how Obama represents a next-generation way of looking at things. (Not for nothing that whenever he gives a speech in a foreign country, he bypasses the rulers in the audience and speaks directly to the nation's young people.)

It's by Matt Bai, who has done several major pieces on Obama for the New York Times Magazine, and it's called "The Shuffle President."

In it, Bai examines what he calls the typical "dramatic narrative" of any incoming president, one in which the new guy comes in with a new agenda, and proceeds to tackle his biggest, signature issue first, which he (or someday, she) concentrates the majority of their "political capital" on one major legacy, for better or for worse. For Bush, it was tax cuts. For Clinton, it was health care. That kind of thing. Those issues define a president, and conventional wisdom is that if they fail in that first big thing, then the rest of their presidency will be a wash. (I could argue that Clinton's presidency accomplished a great deal, but that's another post.)

Obama has, of course, done no such thing. He's fought for climate change legislation, health care, finance regulations, public stimulus plans, ending one war and redesigning another, and so on. All of which has brought on a firestorm of criticism for doing too much, too fast.

Bai says such an outlook may be outdated:

Some of this itinerancy must be attributed to the sheer scope of the wreckage Obama inherited. When you've got failing banks and corporate giants, two ongoing wars, melting icecaps and mountainous health care costs, it's hard to see what gets pushed to the margins. It's also true, though, that Obama's style reflects, whether he means it to or not, a cultural shift on the importance of narrative. Americans acclimated to clicking around hundreds of cable channels or Web pages experience the world less chronologically than their parents did. The most popular books now -- business guides like "Good to Great" or social explorations like "The Tipping Point" -- allow the casual reader to absorb their insights in random order or while skimming whole chapters.

Once we listened to cohesive albums like, say, Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," which kicked off with the snare hit of "Like a Rolling Stone," almost like a starter pistol, and worked its way toward the melancholy postscript of "Desolation Row." Now your iPod might jump mindlessly from "Desolation Row" to "Tombstone Blues," or from Dylan to Rihanna. The shrink-wrapped record has given way to the downloaded single. Wasn't this one reason for all the tributes to Michael Jackson? It's not that "Thriller" was really as singularly awesome as so many of us thought it was in high school. It's more that we know there may never be an album that epic again.

Obama is the nation's first shuffle president. He's telling lots of stories at once, and in no particular order. His agenda is fully downloadable. If what you care most about is health care, then you can jump right to that. If global warming gets you going, then click over there. It's not especially realistic to imagine that politics could cling to a linear way of rendering stories while the rest of American culture adapts to a more customized form of consumption. Obama's ethos may disconcert the older guard in Washington, but it's probably comforting to a lot of younger voters who could never be expected to listen to successive tracks, in the same order, over and over again.

Bai acknowledges the risks in this approach--and poll ups-and-downs reflect that. Some Americans, and their elected representatives, struggle to keep up--as does an exhausted White House staff. And some accomplishments, like the landmark Lilly Ledbetter Act, pretty much get quickly covered up with the next bill that gets signed or speech given.

But there may be more of a method to Obama's attention-deficit madness than most people grasp. E.J. Dionne cut through the clutter pretty decisively in this piece in the Washington Post, "Why Obama Likes His Odds."

Again, this is a generational thing--not in terms of years, but in terms of congress, literally:

It was not the soaring rhetoric that is Barack Obama's signature, but he recently offered the sound bite that may define his presidency: "Don't bet against us."

There are reasons to believe that his confident words -- they were about health-care reform but have broader application -- were not the bombast of a bluffer exaggerating the strength of his hand. They reflect the high cards that Obama holds and has only now started to play.

Of course, no one ever thought passing a health-care bill would be easy, and the effort hit some bumps last week over costs and how to cover them.

But Obama doesn't quite see things the way his more nervous Democratic allies do because he missed the years in Washington during which his party was beaten down. Many Democrats had their perceptions of political reality shaped by the failure of Bill Clinton's health proposal, the 1994 Republican revolution and the GOP's triumphalism during President Bush's first term.

That world, however, turned upside down in 2005 -- the year Obama arrived in Washington. Bush's power dissolved in the failure of his Social Security privatization proposal, the Hurricane Katrina backlash and rising disillusionment with the Iraq war. By the end of 2006, less than two years after Obama's arrival, Democrats had seized control of both houses of Congress.

The paradox is that Obama's limited experience under Republican sway makes him more comfortable than many of his allies are with wielding the power that comes from large Democratic majorities.

And it's real power.

Dionne makes an excellent point in his piece, that Democrats were pretty much battered and bruised under 12 years of Republican abuse. When you have a respected Democratic congressman who left two legs and an arm in the jungles of Vietnam and ran the Veteran's Administration under President Jimmy Carter--Max Cleland--get attacked in political ads for not being patriotic enough, and DEFEATED because of it, then you have only a HINT of the kind of battering Democrats in congress were accustomed to when they first tentatively took over in 2006.

Some of them have not held positions of power for many years, and some of them never have. Some are still intimidated by right-wingers who once pummeled them in the polls.

"The only things fellow Democrats...have to fear are the fears and insecurities bred into them when they were a battered minority," writes Dionne. "Obama is free of those doubts because he never knew them."

There are other ways Obama is often underestimated. The fact that he is willing to listen to all points of view--even encourages this--is often mistaken as a sign of some kind of weakness, as if he has no core values of his own and must try on others to see if they fit.

There is no weakness in considering all points of view, adopting those that are the most pragmatic and workable, and discarding those that are not. But in the end, it is one man who makes the decisions, and it's a mistake to think that he somehow lacks the strength of character to stand by those decisions.

Much has been made of how the Obama administration studied the Clinton health-care plan and analyzed what went wrong in implementing it, but Clinton's is not the only presidency Obama has looked at. In a piece in the Washington Post, Ceci Connolly examines how the Obama administration actually STUDIED LBJ's shepherding of Medicare through congress in 1965.

Most people wouldn't see much similarity between the Ivy League-educated, urbane, soft-spoken Obama and the crude, loudmouth, ornery Texan--but actually, there are similarities. Both came out of the U.S. Senate and both understood how congress worked, and how to "work" congress to get things done.

Since getting back from his overseas trip, Obama has put on a full-court press behind and in front of the scenes, inviting scores of congresspeople and senators to the White House for arm-twisting sessions, giving speeches and press conferences and YouTube addresses and, as he proved today, moving swiftly to capitalize on mistakes made by the opposition.

When South Carolina's dimwitted senator, Jim DeMint, made the mistake of chortling on-mic that if the Republicans could "shut down" Obama on health care, it would be his "Waterloo" and would "break him," Obama was quick to respond in a rapid-fire soundbite, that health care was not about HIM, not about politics, but that it was "breaking American families."

Look at headlines on blogposts or op-eds, and already they're talking about how Obama is "struggling," how this is make-or-break time, how the plan is "unraveling" and how this titanic battle could bring down the ship of state.

It makes good drama. Makes a good story. I used to tell good stories for a living. I understand the power of sustaining suspense, of keeping the reader breathlessly turning pages until the big climax.

We are a nation who loves our heroic narratives and our high drama, whether it be so-called "reality TV" or sports or the latest political contest. We like competition and suspense. We like to see the good guy win and the bad guy stomped.

And in recent years, we like to express our opinions, loudly and often. That's fine. It's democracy as it was meant to be.

But none of that, ultimately, has a whole helluva lot to do with President Obama and how he governs. Like most pragmatists, he understands that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that in any compromise, everybody is going to be a little bit disappointed. The more set in your views, the more disappointed you will be.

But he didn't run for president so that he could spend the next four years running for president, as Bush did, and four years after that trying to lock in Republican power in all three branches of government.

He ran to govern.

Governing is tense and messy but good governing gets results. Those who underestimate Barack Obama do so because they are writing a dramatic narrative in their heads that he does not fit, and so they dismiss him.

But Barack Obama has thrown out that old construct and shuffled the entire medium, hurling it into a fresh, new, 21st century story, a story in which all the senses are engaged at all times, the action is fast, the results, unexpected.

In that story, history is respected, but not relived.

It's kind of like the difference between, say, an old Vaudeville variety show...and Cirque de Soleil.

Groundbreakers, trendsetters, and visionaries are always underestimated when they first burst onto the scene, whether it be in science, the arts, or politics. Throughout history, such men and women have even been imprisoned or put to death because they and their way of looking at the world are so different from most.

This is because people fear change, even when the old way made them miserable. Most of the rage we observe nowadays on blogs and talk shows and so on are simply a mask to cover fear.

There is a lot in the world today that we fear, and a great deal of expectation we've put on the shoulders of one skinny guy. It's easy to think it's just too tough for ANYONE to solve and that, ultimately, all is lost, that any time he makes a mistep, he's about to be hurled into the abyss, and along with him, our hopes and dreams.

We underestimate him and his team, though, at our own peril. He's proved that time and again. Those who do underestimate Obama often compare him to other presidents, in other times, at other points in history.

It might be smarter to compare him to HIMSELF. Where he's been. How far he's come. What he's accomplished so far. What he's working to accomplish in the future.

And how those same people sneered at him when he first ran for president.

Back when I was barely a teen and the Beatles burst onto the scene, I would spend every dime I could earn babysitting for 50 cents an hour on Beatles records and Beatle's memorabilia.

After about six months of this, my mother put her foot down and forbade me to buy anything else Beatles-related. Not records. Not magazines. Nothin'. Not even with my own money that I had earned babysitting in the neighborhood.

Her reasoning?

"They're just a fad," she declared. "A silly fad. Six months from now they'll be gone and somebody else will take their place. You are not wasting another dime of your money on those stupid Beatles."

Now, last week, my husband and daughter and I, on a company trip to Las Vegas, took in the unimaginably wonderful Cirque de Soleil show, LOVE, based on the Beatles, their history, their time, and their music. It was two hours of a fabulous phastasmagoria of color and light and sound and that glorious music. The specially-built ampitheater was sold out, on a weeknight, and it's been, what? Several years now, since the show opened.

I'm not very good at arithmetic, but I'd say it's been about 45 years since my mother pronounced the Beatles "a fad."

Nope, I wouldn't bet against Obama, either.

Howie P.S.: A milder version of the above: "Chuck Todd is right the media, "created this drama that Obama's struggling to get health care reform done" (video). Ezra Klein (WaPo) urges bloggers to stay the course:
...this is the clearest indication we've gotten that the White House sees conference committee as the focal point for its efforts. But that's the message. The audience for this call -- which I was not originally invited to, but was able to listen in on -- was mainly progressive bloggers, and so the underlying argument was that liberals should have some faith that a disappointing draft out of the Senate Finance Committee is not the end of the process, and they should not lose heart.

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