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“A Triumph For Presidential Leadership”: Pundits; Obama’s Too Mean To Iran Deal Critics

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, to her credit, supports the international nuclear agreement with Iran. In her new column, however, she criticizes President Obama anyway, not over the substance of his foreign policy, but for not being nice enough to the diplomatic deal’s opponents.

Obama once understood, even celebrated, this gray zone of difficult policy choices. He was a man who took pains to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns of those on the opposite side of nearly any complex debate.

The new Obama, hardened and embittered – the one on display in his American University speech last week and in the follow-up spate of interviews – has close to zero tolerance for those who reach contrary conclusions.

In fairness to the columnist, Marcus goes on to make substantive suggestions about how best to argue in support of the deal, and she concedes “Obama’s exasperation is understandable.” Her broader point seems to be that she wants to see the deal presented in the most effective way possible, but Marcus nevertheless chides the president for his tone and unwillingness to “accommodate” his foes.

She’s not alone. After the president noted that the American right and the Iranian hardliners find themselves on the same side of this fight, other pundits, including National Journal’s Ron Fournier, raised related concerns about Obama being harsh.

That’s a shame – there are constructive ways to look at the debate over U.S. policy towards Iran, but hand-wringing over presidential tone seems misplaced.

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. President Obama and his team defied long odds, assembled an unlikely international coalition, and struck a historic deal. By most fair measures, this is one of the great diplomatic accomplishments of this generation.

For all the incessant whining from the “Why Won’t Obama Lead?” crowd, this was a triumph for presidential leadership, positioning Obama as one of the most effective and accomplished leaders on the international stage.

To watch this unfold and complain that Obama is simply too mean towards those who hope to kill the deal and derail American foreign policy seems to miss the point.

What’s more, let’s also not lose sight of these detractors’ case. Some of the deal’s critics have compared Obama to Hitler. Others have accused the White House of being a state-sponsor of terrorism. Many of the agreement’s foes in Congress clearly haven’t read the deal – they decided in advance that any agreement would be unacceptable, regardless of merit – and many more have approached the entire policy debate “with vagueness, deception and hysteria.”

Slate’s William Saletan attended the recent congressional hearings on the policy and came away “dismayed” at what opponents of the deal had to offer. Republicans, he concluded, seem “utterly unprepared to govern,” presenting little more than “dishonesty,” “incomprehension,” and an “inability to cope with the challenges of a multilateral world.”

To Marcus’ point, it’s fair to say that the president is not “taking pains to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns of those on the opposite side.” I suppose it’s possible Obama could invest more energy in telling Americans that his critics, when they’re not comparing him to Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, or both, are well-intentioned rivals.

But at this stage of the debate, there should be a greater emphasis on sound policy judgments and accurate, substantive assessments. I’m less concerned with whether Obama is being nice to his critics and more concerned with whether he’s correct.


By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, August 14, 2015

August 15, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Iran Nuclear Agreement, Pundits | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“A Tired, Old And Wrong Cliche”: President Obama Is No ‘Bystander’

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered a widely noticed speech in September 2011, condemning President Obama, not just on policy grounds, but specifically on the issue of leadership. “We continue to wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office,” the governor said. “We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things.”

Much of the political media agreed and echoed the assessment. Pundits crying, “Why won’t Obama lead?” became so common, a tired cliche was born. The president may have run as a young, ambitious leader, eager to change the world, but the Beltway was increasingly convinced: Obama is an overly cautious, overly cerebral president who would rather talk than act.

Two weeks ago, Dana Milbank went so far as to endorse Charles Krauthammer’s thesis of Obama as a “passive bystander.”

The real problem with Obama is not overreach but his tendency to be hands-off.

Since the second year of Obama’s presidency, I have been lamenting the lack of strong leadership coming from the White House, describing Obama in June, 2010, as a “hapless bystander … as the crises cancel his agenda and weaken his presidency.” I’ve since described him over the years as “oddly like a spectator” and as “President Passerby.”

Let’s put aside, for now, the fact that the bystander thesis completely contradicts the other common anti-Obama condemnation: he’s a tyrannical dictator whose radical agenda is destroying the very fabric of America.

Instead, let’s focus on why the bystander thesis appears to be outrageously wrong – especially today.

Faced with an intensifying climate crisis, a hapless bystander, content to watch challenges pass him by, might have decided to do nothing. Maybe he’d call for action in a State of the Union address or issue a white paper, but President Spectator would struggle to shake off the paralysis that makes it impossible to take on the really big things.

Except Obama’s done the opposite, unveiling an ambitious domestic agenda, striking a deal with China that few thought possible, and challenging the rest of the world to follow his lead. It’s an effort wrought with political and policy pitfalls, but Obama’s doing it anyway because he sees this as an effort worth making.

As we discussed back in February, there’s a group of pundits who’ve invested almost comical amounts of time urging Obama to “lead more.” It’s never been entirely clear what, specifically, these pundits expect the president to do, especially in the face of unyielding and reflexive opposition from Congress, but the complaints have been constant for years.

As the argument goes, if only the president were willing to lead – louder, harder, and bigger – he could somehow advance his agenda through sheer force of will, institutional constraints be damned. And if Congress resists, it’s necessarily evidence that Obama is leading poorly – after all, if only he were a more leading leader, Congress would … follow his lead. The line of criticism became so tiresome and so common that Greg Sargent began mocking it with a convenient label: the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.

What seems obvious now, however, is the need for these pundits to reconsider the thesis.

Obama saw a worsening climate crisis, so he decided to take the lead. Obama is tired of waiting for a hapless Congress to act on immigration, so he’s leading here, too. Obama saw an Ebola threat, and he’s leading a global effort to save lives. Obama sees an ISIS threat, so he’s leading an international campaign to confront the militants.

The president showed leadership when disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. He’s showing leadership in trying to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. He showed leadership on the minimum wage, raising it for federal contractors while Congress sat on its hands. He’s showed leadership on health care, rescuing the auto industry, and advancing the cause of civil rights. [Update: several readers reminded me he’s leading on net neutrality, too.]

The policymaking process is filled with choke points, but when the president has his eyes on a priority, he doesn’t just throw up his arms in despair when one door closes; he looks for a new route to his destination.

Now, if Obama’s critics want to question whether he’s leading the country in the right direction, that’s obviously grounds for a spirited debate – each of the president’s decisions can and should be evaluated closely on the merits. “Leadership” is not an a priori good. Obama can take the lead on a given issue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right.

But if Obama’s detractors would have Americans believe he’s not leading at all, I haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 14, 2014

November 17, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, Media, Pundits | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“ABC News’ Rightward Lurch”: Scraping The Bottom Of The Right-Wing Pundit Barrel

ABC News recently hired Laura Ingraham to be a regular contributor to their prestigious Sunday morning political talk show, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” Why on earth would anyone hire Ingraham, a second-rate right-wing bomb-thrower whose shtick is well past its sell-by date? You could ask ABC News, but they’d presumably answer with boilerplate press release-ese about how they seek out a “diversity of viewpoints” and welcome her “provocative” take on world events. Read Digby for a good rundown of exactly how provocative Ingraham’s hot takes have been — Ingraham’s greatest hits includes writing a book in which a central, reoccurring joke was that Michelle Obama constantly ate or craved ribs — but Ingraham’s not the only sorry character ABC has picked up recently.

Last October, “This Week” hired Bill Kristol, the bumbling neoconservative scion, who is famous for his disastrous predictions and his even more disastrous lobbying for war.

In addition to being morally culpable for the meaningless violent deaths of hundreds of thousands, Kristol is also a terrible pundit. He is not just terrible at predictions, he is also dull. He was too lazy a writer and thinker for the New York Times — a paper that still pays Thomas Friedman handsomely — leading them to decline to renew his contract after one year as a columnist. (He moved, naturally, to the Washington Post.) Only a Sunday show producer (or Washington Post opinion page editor) could imagine that Bill Kristol’s take on the issues of the day would be useful or enlightening or even entertaining to anyone.

More recently, ABC picked up Ray Kelly (as a “consultant,” not a mere contributor). Kelly is the former police commissioner of New York City, best known for his racist policing tactics and his blatantly dishonest defenses of same. In November 2013, New York City voters overwhelmingly voted to elect as mayor a man who made the removal of Kelly, and the complete rejection of Kelly’s entire philosophy of policing, a cornerstone of his campaign. Kelly, whose police department routinely lied to journalists (and beat and arrested a few too), is considered a law enforcement genius, because violent crime in New York, having already plummeted from a historic high years prior to the election of Michael Bloomberg, remained relatively low during Kelly’s tenure as commissioner, probably due to environmental and historical trends. He is also considered a great and important man because he knows how to schmooze with the smart set.

Kelly worked for a Democratic mayor and a centrist independent one. He considered running for office as a Republican, but he is probably more of an authoritarian “centrist” than a movement conservative. Still that’s three hires in six months that ought to disgust any decent person. (Even conservatives, who ought to be embarrassed to be “represented” by Ingraham and Kristol). Whatever does it mean?

Perhaps ABC News is repositioning itself as more conservative. NBC’s “Meet the Press” is struggling. It’s easy to imagine a television professional thinking that NBC’s problem is that viewers think it is too liberal, and that therefore the best way to beat it is to become more conservative. Perhaps they are over-correcting for the fact that “This Week’s” Stephanopoulos is a former Clinton White House operative, although at this point that was a lifetime ago, and George has been studiously centrist ever since.

As has been well-documented, none of the big network Sunday shows are remotely liberal, “This Week” included. According to Media Matters’ research, in 2013, “This Week’s” guests and panel lineups were not appreciably more left-wing than its major competitors. (Fox’s Sunday show was significantly more conservative, but that show isn’t aimed at the same “insider” Acela corridor “centrist” audience that the other three fight for.) All the networks skew white, male and right-wing. If ABC is aiming to win over a more conservative audience, it seems to be scraping the bottom of the right-wing pundit barrel.

But maybe there was no strategic thinking behind these three hires at all. Maybe each one just made sense to whomever was responsible at the time. Maybe three completely odious people who do not in any way deserve such large and well-compensated platforms for their discredited opinions all just got hired by the same network because the news media elite, like the finance and political elite, refuse or are unable to recognize the obvious and total moral bankruptcy of members of their own clan.

Or maybe Bill Kristol just has an amazing agent.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, April 15, 2014

April 16, 2014 Posted by | Media, Pundits | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Once Again, The Pundits Get It Wrong”: The Virginia Election Was A Big Win For Obamacare.

As the Affordable Care Act was about to go fully into effect last month, the New York Times ran a big front-page article highlighting the fact that millions of Americans would go uncovered by the law as a result of the Supreme Court decision making it possible for states to opt out of the expansion of Medicaid. Half of the states have made this choice, creating a confounding scenario in which middle-income people can qualify for subsidies to obtain private coverage but the neediest working poor, who were supposed to be covered by Medicaid, are getting no help at all.

“How can somebody in poverty not be eligible for subsidies?” an unemployed health care worker in Virginia asked through tears. The woman, who identified herself only as Robin L. because she does not want potential employers to know she is down on her luck, thought she had run into a computer problem when she went online Tuesday and learned she would not qualify.

At 55, she has high blood pressure, and she had been waiting for the law to take effect so she could get coverage. Before she lost her job and her house and had to move in with her brother in Virginia, she lived in Maryland, a state that is expanding Medicaid. “Would I go back there?” she asked. “It might involve me living in my car. I don’t know. I might consider it.”

Last night, the prospects for Robin L. and the estimated 400,000 Virginians who would be eligible under a Medicaid expansion brightened considerably. The gubernatorial election was won by Terry McAuliffe, who made the Medicaid expansion such a central part of his campaign that for a time he was even threatening to shut down the state government unless legislators included it in their budget. The expansion, which is now being studied by an ad hoc state panel, still faces big hurdles—the General Assembly remains firmly in Republican control, and the Koch brothers are spending heavily to pressure those Republican state legislators who dare to support the expansion. Still, the odds of the expansion happening are infinitely greater with McAuliffe in the Governor’s Mansion than with the fiercely anti-Obamacare Ken Cuccinelli.

So, the election was a clear win for Obamacare, right? Nope, say the pundits. The fact that Cuccinelli finished closer than recent polling suggested, they say, is a clear sign of strong public opposition to Obamacare, which Cuccinelli made a centerpiece of his campaign in the final days.


Virginia was the first swing state to hold an election after the Affordable Care Act website’s troublesome rollout, a controversy that has permeated national news coverage for weeks. Almost 30% of Virginia voters said health care was the most important issue in the race. While Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly beat out conservative Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, analysts credit a GOP focus on Obamacare for boosting Cuccinelli’s vote total. “This is what kept this race close,” CNN’s John King said Wednesday on “New Day.”

And Politico proclaimed: “Obamacare almost killed McAuliffe”:

Exit polls show a majority of voters—53 percent—opposed the law. Among them, 81 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 8 percent voted for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. McAuliffe won overwhelmingly among the 46 percent who support the health care overhaul.

Cuccinelli actually won independents by 9 percentage points, 47 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls conducted for a group of media organizations. They made up about one-third of the electorate. “Obamacare helped close the gap,” said Richmond-based strategist Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

I’m not sure when I last saw such a stark example of election spin and punditry floating away from the substantive reality of governing and its impact on actual people. There is no mention in these accounts of the greatly enhanced prospects for the Medicaid expansion in Virginia as a result of McAuliffe’s win. No, it’s all about the exit polls and what it might mean for Obama and the Democrats. But Obama’s not on the ballot again, ever, and the Democrats aren’t on it again for another year. Who knows what voters will think of Obamacare then—the troubles with the rollout will either have resolved by then or they will not have. All we know right now is that after a very rough patch for the law, the guy who ran strongly in support of it beat a guy who was strongly opposed to it, in the most purple state in the country. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of working poor may get health insurance coverage. How removed from the reality of these people’s lives does one have to be to chalk up such a result as a loss for Obamacare?


By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, November 6, 2013

November 7, 2013 Posted by | Media, Obamacare, Pundits | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Siren Song Of War”: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq

Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard.

First let’s consider the contrarians. Young Matthew Yglesias, who was in college at the time and thus deserves to be excused, wrote a refreshingly honest piece that noted the seductions of contrarianism: “Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.” It was easy to feel the glow of being an utterly unique snowflake, and yet at the same time to join the establishment. How special!

What Yglesias calls the“fake-dissident posture” held a powerful allure for war supporter Dan Savage as well. Reading between the lines of his stridently pro-war 2003 column, it’s clear that the anti-war types worked his last nerve. Everything about them is uncool — their posters are “sad-looking” and their slogans are cheesy. True, the left can be deeply irritating. Protests are great, but why can’t the organizers come up with better music? Yet that’s a stunningly shallow reason to support a brutal war that left over 100,000 people dead.

Next up are those heroic journalists – sometimes dubbed the “Keyboard Commandos” — who wanted to re-fight World War II in Iraq. This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

Paul Berman was another journalist who tirelessly refought the good war from his armchair. As he explained in a roundtable, Iraq was important because it provided an opportunity for intellectuals to “speak up.” How lovely for them! Admittedly, says Berman, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were “counterproductive in some respects,” because “for a while, they appeared to discredit the notion of liberal democracy, which was dreadful. This, apart from the deaths and suffering.” [emphasis added].

On the tape, writer David Rieff is aghast: “All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!” My God, indeed.

Let’s not neglect the pundits of the so-called “decent left.” Obsessed with preserving the martial virtue of the Democratic Party, these types zealously advocated a militaristic version of liberalism. Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, figured prominently in this group. To Beinart, opponents of the Iraq War were guilty of “abject pacifism”, and he all but advocated purging them from the Democratic Party, Cold War-style. They might be liberals, but wanted the world to know they were respectable thinkers– not filthy hippies.

Finally, there’s the most powerful, if most deeply buried justification of all: Iraq provided an opportunity for dweebish, pasty, desk-bound dudes to indulge in macho daydreams. Throughout history, men have asserted masculine dominance through imperial adventures. While few liberal female pundits were pro-war, many centrist and liberal men were unable to resist the war’s siren call.

The most infamous example of such macho knucklehead punditry is Thomas Friedman’s 2003 appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. The war, he said then, was “unquestionably worth doing” so we could tell the Iraqis to “suck on this.” Commentary so inane and puerile would sound outrageous coming out of the mouth of Friedman’s fictional look-alike Ron Burgundy; that an actual, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times columnist said it simply boggles the mind.

By 2011, writing as the last American troops pulled out of Iraq, Friedman’s macho swagger had completely vanished. Was the war a wise choice? “My answer is twofold: ‘No’ and ‘Maybe, sort of, we’ll see.’ ” Weasel words don’t get any more weaselly. This week he said merely that America “paid too much” for the war.

Writing this week in The New Yorker, Packer admits “the war was a disaster for Iraq and the U.S. alike. It was conceived in deceit and born in hubris.” Note the passive voice — he takes no personal responsibility for helping to foment the media stampede into war.

For what it’s worth, Beinart eventually saw the war as a tragic mistake. But his repentance came far too late. But Berman clearly has learned nothing and has no regrets. He wrote in The New Republic this week that “the isolationist alternative” to the war was “fantastical nonsense.”

Sullivan eventually denounced the war as tragically wrong – but in the early days, when it actually mattered, he was among its most obnoxious cheerleaders. His buddy Hitchens died in 2011, without ever having second thoughts about Iraq.

As for Dan Savage, his position grew more ambivalent within six months after that highly belligerent column — but he doesn’t seem to have written a word about Iraq since then.

The inability of these pundits to think straight may simply be a symptom of narcissism poisoning. For them, invasion and war were all about presenting their preferred face to the world — and to themselves. Henry James once wrote that a writer should be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” For these pundits, everything was lost — everything, that is, but their own overgrown egos.


By: Kathleen Geier, The National Memo, March 22, 2013

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Iraq War, Pundits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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