The President of Disappointments How Obama Has Failed to Deliver
Part 2: The Degraded Political Dialogue
But what exactly qualifies as news anymore, when his smart phone seems to be showing "breaking news" every minute? Todd doesn't always know, either. His remark about peeing into a hurricane are strong words from a man who is considered one of Washington's more influential journalists, so influential, in fact, that Obama greeted him personally as "Chuck" during his speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
In the NBC spots advertising his show, Todd says that he wants to ask the kinds of questions at the White House that ordinary citizens can't ask. But does he even have the time to come up with good questions? Or are campaign managers right when they say that it's much easier nowadays to feed their doctored news stories to overworked journalists, because no one has the time to check them anymore.
Todd, 40, grew up with printed newspapers and magazines, and with the Washington Post and thick presidential biographies on his night table. He was born at a time when newspaper articles could still bring down presidents. Today the same Washington Post that became famous with its stories about Watergate and the resignation of former President Richard Nixon is losing millions every year, fighting to stay afloat.
The television evening news programs, still a daily focal point for 53 million Americans in 1980, are also losing viewers in droves. On good days, 20 million viewers watch the evening news, a tiny number in a country as big as the United States. Things have become faster and more colorful, says Todd. Cable broadcaster MSNBC has 24 hours a day to fill with programming, even as it competes with the much faster Web. For his "Daily Rundown," Todd also has to find out what kind of soup is being served for lunch at the White House cafeteria. That's what exclusive news looks like these days.
The bloggers and tweeters have taken control of the media, as have new media outlets like Politico, a blog whose reporters have 15 minutes after a presidential speech to turn in their first analyses. They are groomed to focus on conflict because it attracts the most attention. Readers are quick to click away from stories that don't titillate, so that fleeting moments become the real story in Washington.
Gossip and Chatter
When Obama gives his speech on the state of the union, his advisors no longer wait for the editorials to gauge its effect. Instead, they systematically plow through tweets during the speech -- a total of 766,681 during the last State of the Union address. And when former Alaska Governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the great hope of dim-witted America, calls the president a socialist on her Facebook page, she attracts more attention than a team of reporters from the New York Times that has spent months researching stories about nuclear weapons, the banking crisis and war.
Americans gossip and chatter, but they no longer talk to one another. Liberals read blogs like the Huffington Post and watch MSNBC. Conservatives read the Drudge Report and watch Fox News. Switching back and forth only makes things more confusing, which is why many people are losing interest. Polls show that many Americans no longer want to discuss politics. This must be disconcerting for a TV reporter like Chuck Todd. "It is easy to say the media stinks," he says. "If loud voices on the left and right are constantly telling you these guys stink at what they do, then the public also says, 'Oh, yeah, they stink at what they do.'"
Everyone gets into the game of painting things in black and white. And because it's so difficult to come up with catchy campaign slogans for America's extremely diverse society, the attempts to reach people are getting increasingly crude on both sides. The Republicans aren't the only ones coming up with hard-hitting campaign rhetoric. So are the Democrats, especially Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager.
Cutter is 43, attractive and aggressive, and when she isn't talking into cameras and microphones, she sits in front of long rows of computers at the offices of the Obama-Biden re-election campaign in Chicago. When TV ads recently quoted Karl Rove, the Republican campaign guru, calling Obama a president of broken promises, Cutter was in her element.
Hand-to-Hand Political Combat
No one should believe that "BS," she told the media. Bullshit isn't a word that is quite kosher in the United States, and certainly isn't used openly in press conferences. But this doesn't stop the well-dressed and sophisticated Cutter, as she stares straight into the cameras.
The truth is that Cutter is Obama's attack dog, a hyper-aggressive promoter of Democrats, at home in Washington's trenches for almost two decades. Cutter worked for former President Bill Clinton in the White House when the Republicans tried to impeach him.
Her specialty is political hand-to-hand combat, dirty, vicious and fast, which Cutter treats like sports. "Politics really works like ping pong," she says. "It's always a back and forth." It's important, she says, that the Democrats don't fall behind. The sheer competitive nature of this election campaign is obvious, the two campaigns seem to focus entirely on scoring quick points, day in and day out. Compared to the American presidential campaign, European election campaigns feel like university panel discussions.
Vice President Joe Biden's current mantra is that anyone who wants to evaluate the Obama presidency needs to know only one sentence: "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." More or less everyone involved in the race is using the same tone, making the political contest sound like an ad for chocolate bars or toilet paper.
But what is the campaign really about? A review of Obama's domestic policy performance in the first years of his presidency yields a list of clear successes, which he now rattles off at every campaign event. They include his $787 million economic stimulus package, which prevented the economy from collapsing after the 2008 financial crisis, and the government bailouts of the American auto industry, which helped turn things around in Detroit. Obama claims credit for fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians, and he hopes to be remembered as the president who launched the biggest healthcare reform in the nation's history, which helped provide 32 million people with health insurance.
Each of these achievements is impressive in its own right, but the list of Obama's domestic successes pretty much stops there, and it doesn't coalesce into a sizeable, comprehensible agenda of "Change." He has also had some serious failures. Last summer, for example, Obama took his biggest beating yet in his bid to achieve national reconciliation when he failed to force the Republicans to compromise on a long-term budget, even though the government was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Zealots of All Stripes
Blaming political rivals for one's own mistakes comes across as weakness, even though it's true in this case: The Tea Party, that radical movement within the Republican Party that began squealing the minute Obama came into office, is behind the obstruction of political operations in America. But couldn't Obama and his team be expected to find his enemies' weaknesses and use them to weaken opposition?
The Tea Party opposes every Obama proposal without exception, including environmental policies, various economic stimulus programs, healthcare reform and fiscal policy. Its own ideas are hard to beat when it comes to sheer radicalism, ideas that, in Europe, would probably make the movement subject to investigation by domestic intelligence agencies. Tea Party activists, for example, want the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and put an end to all social programs. They call for the elimination of many government institutions, most notably the Federal Reserve and, of course, the Internal Revenue Service.
Zealots of all stripes have come together under the Tea Party umbrella: economic liberals, gun enthusiasts, social Darwinist and members of militia movements. The "Birthers," who introduced the debate over the president's identity, are also part of the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party is a problem for Obama, not because it could come into power itself, but because it exerts so much influence over the Republican Party and, in the end, has become the loudspeaker for the conservative half of America's population. More alarmingly than ever, the Tea Party combines the glorification of the unsophisticated with megalomania, and conspiracy theories with poor education. Its supporters represent dark clichés of a vapid America, one in which there are plenty of people who would have no objection to many a modern book being burned. The novels of Jonathan Franzen, author of "Freedom" and "The Corrections," could certainly be part of that list.