- Washington could not tell a lie.
- Nixon could not tell the truth.
- It is said that Obama can’t tell the difference.
A four-hour stop in New Orleans, on his way to a $3 million fundraiser.
Snubbing the Dalai Lama.
Signing off on a secret deal with drug makers.
Freezing out a TV network.
Doing more fundraisers than the last president. More golf, too.
President Barack Obama has done all of those things — and more.
What’s remarkable is what hasn’t happened. These episodes haven’t become metaphors for Obama’s personal and political character — or consuming controversies that sidetracked the rest of his agenda.
It’s a sign that the media’s echo chamber can be a funny thing, prone to the vagaries of news judgment, and an illustration that, in politics, context is everything.
And quickly add, with a hint of jealousy: How does Obama get away with it?
“We have a joke about it. We’re going to start a website: IfBushHadDoneThat.com,” former Bush counselor Ed Gillespie said. “The watchdogs are curled up around his feet, sleeping soundly. … There are countless examples: some silly, some serious.”
Indeed, Bush got grief for secret meetings with the oil industry, politicizing the White House and spending too much time on his beloved bike. But it’s not just Republicans who notice. Media observers note that the president often gets kid-glove treatment from the press, fellow Democrats and, particularly, interest groups on the left — Bush’s loudest critics, Obama’s biggest backers.
But others say there’s a larger phenomenon at work — in the story line the media wrote about Obama’s presidency. For Bush, the theme was that of a Big Business Republican who rode the family name to the White House, so stories about secret energy meetings and a certain laziness, intellectual and otherwise, fit neatly into the theme, to be replayed over and over again.
Obama’s story line was more positive from the start: historic newcomer coming to shake up Washington. So the negatives that sprung up around Obama — like a sense that he was more flash than substance — track what negative coverage he’s received, captured in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit that made fun of his lack of accomplishments in office.
“There may well be almost an unconscious effort on the part of the media to give Obama a bit more slack because he is more likable, because he is the first African-American president. That plays into it,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.
Democrats find the complaints of Obama “getting a pass” hard to stomach in light of the way the press treated Bush — particularly on the single biggest mistake of his presidency, relying on the faulty intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. Now, Obama’s aides say, the positive coverage simply reflects the fact that their efforts are succeeding.
“As our administration makes progress on the agenda that Washington has ignored for too long, we expect we’ll get some news coverage of that progress that we like and some tough coverage that we don’t,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “It’s not unlike the New Orleans Saints, who are getting lots of good coverage of their perfect record so far — certainly better coverage than the [2-5] Redskins — but it doesn’t mean the Saints have liked every story that’s been written about them since training camp. It goes with the territory.”
There are signs the friendly tone toward Obama is ebbing. Case in point: a front-page story in The New York Times noting that Obama’s all-male basketball games drew fire from the head of the National Organization for Women, who called the games “troubling.”
But here are other stories in which Obama seems to have gotten a pass:
As a candidate, Obama railed against the Bush administration for abandoning and then neglecting the people of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. He made five campaign trips to the city.
But as president, Obama waited almost nine months before visiting the Big Easy, spent less than four hours on the ground there and then jetted to San Francisco for a $3 million Democratic fundraiser.
“Don’t judge anybody on the amount of time that they’ve spent there. Judge only what this administration promised that they would do, what they’ve done every day and what they’re continuing to work on,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said, pointing to positive reviews of the federal government’s efforts under Obama.
For their part, Democrats can’t see how Bush officials can muster much umbrage over anything related to New Orleans, given how the Republican administration handled the initial response to Katrina.
Managing the press
When the Obama administration moved in recent weeks to isolate and disparage Fox News as a wing of the Republican Party, there were few immediate howls of outrage — even from Fox’s fellow journalists in the media.
Press defenders and First Amendment advocates who jumped on the Bush administration for using military analysts to shape war coverage reacted with a yawn to the White House’s announcement that it had deemed Fox to be not a “legitimate news organization.”
“Had I said about MSNBC what the Obama White House said about Fox, the media uproar would still be going on,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s press secretary until 2003. “I instinctively would have known … the media would have leapt to their feet to defend them. I’m shocked it’s not happening now.”
One press veteran agreed. “If George Bush had taken on MSNBC, what would have happened?” said Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large of the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s one place you can point to a real difference in how I’d imagine Bush would be treated.”
Politicizing the White House
Throughout the Bush administration, liberal critics warned that the hand of Bush political adviser Karl Rove was spreading politics into all corners of government. Reporters were on alert for any sign that politics was infecting the work of federal agencies. One top appointee got in hot water for allegedly asking agency officials to work to “help our candidates” across the country.
So some Bush aides went nearly apoplectic earlier this month when they spotted Gibbs and Obama’s political guru, David Axelrod, in photos of a Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan policy.
“Oh, the howling and screaming that would have happened if Karl Rove was sitting in on even a deputies-level meeting where strategy was being hammered out. People would have just gone ballistic,” said Peter Feaver, a former White House aide for both Bush and Bill Clinton.
Also, in about nine months, Obama has already attended more than two dozen fundraising events, while Bush did only six in his first year in office, according to a tally by CBS’s Mark Knoller.
Gibbs said Obama had to do more to raise a similar amount of money, since the kinds of soft-money fundraisers Bush did early on were banned. “This president … doesn’t accept money from PACs or lobbyists and doesn’t allow lobbyists to give at fundraisers that he’s at, as well,” Gibbs added.
Dealing with business, in secret
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney endured years of criticism and lawsuits that stretched all the way to the Supreme Court over secret meetings Cheney’s Energy Task Force held with oil and gas companies. When the policy emerged, critics said Cheney was carrying water for the industry.
Obama pledged to hash out health care reform live on C-SPAN and excoriated Bush for kowtowing to the drug industry. But aides signed off on the drug industry’s agreement to find $80 billion in savings to support reform. However, Obama aides didn’t disclose that the agreement involved the White House promising that current health legislation wouldn’t include further cuts or give the government the right to negotiate over drug prices.
Toning down human rights
During the campaign, Obama talked tough on China. While candidate Obama pushed Bush to take a hard line, President Obama hasn’t. Hoping to win China’s help on Iran and North Korea, Obama skipped a meeting with the Dalai Lama and said little when China undertook a violent crackdown in its largely Muslim Xinjiang region. The White House has pledged to meet with the Dalai Lama later.
And while candidate Obama warned Bush against a “reckless and cynical initiative [that] would reward a regime in Khartoum that has a record of failing to live up to its commitments,” President Obama’s envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, seemed to lay out a similar incentive-driven approach.
“We’ve got to think about giving out cookies,” said Gration. “Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” The White House backed away from Gration’s characterization of the strategy but did recently lay out a strategy of engaging with the Sudanese regime.
Traveling and recreating
In his campaign and as president, Bush was mocked for a lack of interest in all things foreign — seven minutes touring the Kremlin, 25 minutes at the Great Wall of China, before declaring, “Let’s go home.”
During a trip to Europe in June, Obama chastised German and French reporters for suggesting that he was snubbing those countries by making only brief stops in each. “There are only 24 hours in the day. And so there’s nothing to any of that speculation beyond us just trying to fit in what we could do on such a short trip,” he told reporters in Germany.
But after taking his wife out for an attention-grabbing date night, Obama promptly jetted back to Washington. Within about 90 minutes of arriving at the White House, the tightly scheduled president was on the move again — headed to Andrews Air Force Base to play nine holes of golf.