The press corps works to hold the president accountable for what he does and extra hard to hold him accountable for what he does not do, a territory so vast and encompassing that foraging journalists assigned to the beat can never hunger for a story. Everything and nothing become fixings.
So even before Barack Obama swears to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution on Jan. 20, the press corps—which has failed to make anything it has thrown at him stick (Wright, Rezko, * Ayers, voting “present,” his FISA, the surge, guns, capital punishment, and campaign finance flip-flops)—will finally start extracting maximum punishment.
Those who predict a three-month honeymoon between journalists and the incoming President Obama have not been reading their daily newspaper. In ordinary times, only short-term rewards can be reaped from being the president’s best friend in the press corps. No president is ever as good and wise and fair and tough and patient and tactful and brave as lickspittling reporters try to make him sound, and the glorifiers tend to retreat after a bit because they know they’re depleting their credibility with all the flattery.
But these are not normal times. The economy has fallen into an abyss, Afghanistan appears lost, and Obama’s own party will turn on him if he doesn’t transform the country into Sweden overnight. No matter how well he prepares, every new president faces a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t template, as James Deakin explains in his 1984 book Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth. These either-or constructions, Deakin writes, include:
How is the president getting along with the news media? Are they treating him well or badly? Is he a master of communications or an ineffective performer on the tube? Is he accessible to reporters and candid with them? Or is he secretive, misleading the press and throwing a cloak of national security over the administration’s precious bodily fluids? Why doesn’t he have more press conferences? Why have his press conferences become such increasingly meaningless spectacles? Why does he manipulate the press so brazenly to achieve his purposes? Why doesn’t he use the press more effectively to achieve his purposes? Why is the press so subservient to the president? Why is the press so hostile to the president?
To Deakin’s list of relations-with-the-press critiques that a president inevitably faces we can add these either-ors that Obama will have to endure from the press: Is he moving too fast on the economy or too slow? Is he too deferential to Congress or too pushy? Is he coddling Iran or baiting it? Why isn’t he making good on his Iraq pledge—why is he throwing the Iraq victory away? Why is he repeating Bill Clinton’s mistakes? Why can’t he govern from the center like Bill Clinton? Isn’t it time he made good on his domestic campaign promises? What makes him think the current economy can take the shock of universal health care? He’s as secrecy-obsessed as George W. Bush! He’s more combative with Congress than Bush was! You call that a liberal appointment to the Supreme Court?!
Obama will abandon the habit of walking on water he picked up during the past two years because you can’t build a moat around the White House the way you can a presidential campaign. His administration may stay on message and never leak, but it won’t be the only circus in town. Few Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, federal bureaucrats, federal grantees, soldiers and sailors, or others drawing a salary from the U.S. Treasury get the love or respect from the president that they think they’re owed. They’ll leak because it will be in their interest to leak, and the press will feast. When they leak, he’ll do what every president has done. He’ll flip out.
Obama looks invincible only because he’s been a smart candidate running a smart campaign. It’s the nature of campaigns that the greatest negativity slung at a candidate usually comes from his competitors, but at the close of a campaign, the rules change. Plus, you can’t FOIA or sue a stonewalling campaign, but you can FOIA and sue the bejesus out of stonewalling administration. Hundreds of careers will be made by beating on President Obama, with many of the most critical stories originating with his constituents. Complaining that he’s moving too slow, the unions will demand immediate passage of card-check legislation. Doves will urge instant defense cuts. Enviros will push for an end to coal, the establishment of a solar economy, and the criminalization of carbon. Even if Obama had the votes (which he does) and the money (which he doesn’t), Congress isn’t in session long enough to pass the encyclopedic Democratic agenda.
Presidents inexorably blame the press for their “failures.” As Deakin notes, their attempts to make things secret prompts secrecy penetration by the press, and the journalistic attempts to understand presidential decision-making tends to undermine decision-making—at least in the minds running the administration, which prefers silence while it thinks. Competing journalists like nothing more than an uproar.
Obama the candidate thrived on the strategic ambiguity that made liberals think he was liberal, moderates think he was moderate, and conservatives think he was tolerable. But after the election, ambiguity must be replaced with action, and action is controversial—that is, the stuff of news.
It won’t be war until Obama fights back, as he will. Everything the press does makes the job of governing more difficult, Deakin observes, even putatively sympathetic reporting. As Obama faces that reality, he’ll become less and less Obama-esque, more vengeful and cloistered, and the press will have a fresh story to pursue: the decline of Obamaism and the triumph of Washington as usual. How much will pent-up antagonism at the overcontrolling Obama campaign contribute to the abrasive reports? You have to ask?
The White House will counter by serving the standard ration of seduction and hostility to the press because, as Deakin explains, it’s as much in the press business as the press is. Whenever possible, it seeks to scoop the conventional press. It wants the public lapping up its “reports,” not those of the press, and its credibility logically increases whenever the credibility of the conventional press falls.
Being commander in chief of the armed forces is never good enough. Presidents always want to be the nation’s editor-in-chief, too. Once they assume that title, total press war is just around the corner.
Deakin’s book is such a trove of anecdote and example you’d be a moron if presidential press politics interest you and you don’t pick up a used copy of it. I got mine through Amazon for $.01 plus $3.99 handling, but there are a slew of cheap copies there and at AbeBooks. Send your press-book bargain tips to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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