Obama’s Army

Column: Who needs elections when we have the mainstream media?

(Pelley Photo: AP)
September 21, 2012

You are probably eager to vote on Nov. 6. You have followed the news closely, watched the ads, listened to the conventions, and waited for the debates. If you are like most people, you are worried about the direction of the country, and for good reason. Calling the current economic situation a "recovery" is an insult. The government has failed to address important matters such as taxes, spending, and debt. American embassies across the Muslim world are under siege. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, Putin just ejected USAID from Russia, and China and Japan are hurtling towards conflict. The candidates agree: This election is a choice between two futures. You get to say which path you would prefer in a little over a month.

Just kidding! The election is over, and Mitt Romney lost. He’s toast; his goose is cooked; put a fork in him he’s done; he’s yesterday’s news. Disagree? That’s too bad. The American media have made up their minds. And on this they are certain: Barack Obama is a lock for reelection. They may not be sure when Romney lost exactly—was it his trip to England, Israel, and Poland? Was it the Clint Eastwood speech at the RNC? Was it Romney’s response to the attacks on our embassies in Benghazi and Cairo? Was it his leaked remarks on government dependency? The exact date doesn’t matter. What matters is that the chorus has spoken. The politburo has decided. A consensus has been reached. Romney will lose, and the only question is by how much. The voters might as well stay at home.

The conceited arrogance with which our most sophisticated and well-schooled editors, writers, and journalists voice this conclusion makes it that much more annoying. Their eagerness to judge Romney a failure is not only premature but also erodes whatever credibility they had left. Indeed, the ridiculous manner in which the political press has covered the 2012 campaign suggests that "bias" is no longer a suitable description of the character of the media establishment. "Partisan toadies" may be a better one. "Obama’s army" is another.

Here is where the campaign actually stands. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has President Obama in the lead with 48 percent of the vote, and Mitt Romney close behind with 45 percent. That is a tight race, with less than seven weeks before Election Day. The fundamentals, moreover, seem not to have changed much at all, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. Americans remain disappointed in Obama’s job performance while liking him personally, but recent history and Romney’s personal and political nebulousness make them reluctant to embrace the challenger.

The final outcome of the election will depend on several factors that cannot be anticipated: How the candidates perform in the debates; unpredictable events such as the financial crisis in Europe or war in East Asia or the Middle East; and the extent to which Obama’s base shows up to vote. The election is a jump ball. As Joe Biden might say, literally no one on this planet knows the future. Political forecasting, like astrology and reading entrails, is a junk science. Historical "laws" hold true until the day they are exposed as false.

Does anyone doubt that if it were Romney rather than Obama who led by three points, the creed recited daily on MSNBC would stress the inexact nature of polling and the overwhelming power of conservative millionaires and billionaires? Imagine for a moment that a Republican was president: What would appear on the front pages and at the top of the network news broadcasts? There would be stories on long-term unemployment, stagnant wagesbrutalized net worth, and credit downgrades. There would be stories on last weekend’s brazen attack on our base in Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of two Marines and the loss of eight Harrier jets. The White House would be slammed for its changing and evasive explanation of the murder of a U.S. ambassador and his security officers.

Charges of corruption would be leveled at the president for naming the wife of a wealthy contributor to the U.N. General Assembly just weeks after that contributor penned a New York Times op-ed arguing the president does indeed support Israel (though if the president were a Republican support for Israel would not be in doubt). The AP would resurrect its headline from the spring of 2008: "Everything Seemingly Is Spinning Out of Control." Imagine the deafening, glass-shattering howls as NBC and ABC and CBS and PBS and NPR and CNN and MSNBC and NYT and WAPO and WSJ and AP and Reuters and FT and Bloomberg and Politico demanded accountability.

The fact that the media line is so mutable—that the tone and emphasis of their coverage is merely a function of Obama’s relative position—reveals the extent to which the press has become a withering and slightly deformed appendage of the center-left. This is not a matter of "vetting" the president’s biography and past associations four years into his term. It is a matter of covering Obama’s official record, right now, as the global economy stagnates, Washington deadlocks, Europe teeters, Islamists take power in the Middle East, Iran grows emboldened, Afghanistan falls apart, and China and Russia fester. It is about suggesting, if only hinting, that Obama and not George W. Bush, ATMs, or an idiot in California might be at least somewhat responsible for what is happening in the world.

What we receive from the media is something else entirely. Obama is not the incumbent in their eyes. He is the challenger. He is running against what Elizabeth Warren called a "rigged" system—the same system over which he has presided for almost four years. He is running against the Wall Street fat cats whose money he is happy to take when it suits his purposes.

In the eyes of the media, the stimulus was a roaring success. The problem with the health care overhaul is that the Democrats have failed to explain its virtues to a confused and "frustrated" public. Obama’s dismal record and his emphatic failure to say what he might like to accomplish in a second term do not merit inclusion in the approved storyline.

Obama’s most successful reset, it turns out, was not with Russia but with the mainstream media: In their eyes we are back where we started, in 2008, and Obama is once again nothing more or less than a symbol of racial and political progress whose opponents are ideologues or reactionaries or bigots.

This is the story line that has dominated news coverage of Obama ever since that first tingle ran up Chris Matthews’ leg, and we know the media love story lines. They have been committed in this election to the twin notions that the Republicans are radical obstructionists and that Romney is an out-of-touch and gaffe-prone plutocrat. Neither the Republicans nor Romney can do anything to change such an impression once it has been set in media concrete. It is left to the rest of us to show the media oligarchy that it is wrong, and that the election is not over until Nov. 6 (and perhaps, God help us, not even then).

But be warned: If Romney does lose, not only will you have to deal with the consequences of a second Obama term. You also will have to watch as the smug and puffed up soldiers in Obama’s vainglorious army pat themselves on the back, and pompously remind the country that they were right all along. And that is a price even the most eager voter should be unwilling to pay.