Who, what, when, where, how, and why. That’s what a news story is supposed to provide, except that last thing, the why, can be problematic. The party in question may not provide any statement of motivation, so a good reporter does some digging. The corrupt politician might have had financial problems, or the mass-murderer had an unfortunate childhood or a mental illness – interview a few experts on that sort of thing and enlighten the readers. Of course every war, large or small, has a back-story – append a history lesson of the Balkans or of the sectarian divisions in Islam, or how the Irish had once really preferred James II to William and Mary. Maybe we really went to war in Iraq because George Bush needed to prove something to his father – it was no more than an in-your-face insult to the old man who was always picking on him – or maybe Dick Cheney just lost it. There are lots of back-stories, and most of them are nonsense, but one must explain the why, even if no one knows why yet, or may never know why. Readers don’t want to be told the event was random – hey, shit happens. They don’t want the news, what happened, they want news stories. There has to be a narrative, like in a Dickens novel or blockbuster Hollywood movie – bad guys and good guys and conflict and crises and an inevitable denouement. We explain the world to ourselves, and to other, through stories.
Now it’s time to explain how Obama blew it, with three scandals erupting – the massive Benghazi cover-up, where Obama called it an act of terrorism and not a terrorist act, and the IRS scandal, where the IRS seemed to be picking on Tea Party organizations that had claimed they weren’t political at all, and now the Associated Press scandal, where, on May 10, the Associated Press received a letter from the Department of Justice informing them that the government had acquired two months of their telephone records, causing quite an uproar. All this is big news, or it isn’t, as Kevin Drum notes:
I’m terminally bored with our current scandal hat trick, which in record time has reached the meta-stage where it produces no actual fresh news, just a steady flow of lazy thumbsuckers about how President Obama is now inundated with scandals. This despite the fact that Benghazi is still the nothingburger it’s always been, and everyone knows it; the DOJ episode is a policy debate, not a scandal; and it’s vanishingly unlikely that Obama had even the most tenuous connection to the IRS targeting of tea party groups, the only genuine scandal in the bunch.
The only genuine scandal in the bunch is now being neutered:
President Obama announced Wednesday night that the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service had been ousted after disclosures that the agency gave special scrutiny to conservative groups. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., meanwhile, warned top IRS officials that a Justice Department inquiry would examine any false statements to see if they constituted a crime.
Speaking in the White House’s formal East Room, Mr. Obama said Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew had asked for and accepted the resignation of the acting commissioner, Steven Miller, who as deputy commissioner was aware of the agency’s efforts to demand more information from conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in early 2012.
“Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” Mr. Obama said. “It should not matter what political stripe you’re from. The fact of the matter is the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity.”
Obama came out on the side of the Tea Party – he’s outraged too. The AP phone thing is a bit harder to deal with, as Republicans have always supported the law that allows the Department of Justice to do this very thing, but there’s a fix for that too:
Under fire over the Justice Department’s use of a broad subpoena to obtain calling records of Associated Press reporters in connection with a leak investigation, the Obama administration sought on Wednesday to revive legislation that would provide greater protections to reporters in keeping their sources and communications confidential.
President Obama’s Senate liaison, Ed Pagano, on Wednesday morning called the office of Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and asked him to reintroduce a version of a bill that he had pushed in 2009 called the Free Flow of Information Act, a White House official said.
The bill would create a federal media shield law akin to ones most states already have, giving journalists some protections from penalties for refusing to identify confidential sources in federal law enforcement proceedings, and generally enabling journalists to ask a federal judge to quash subpoenas for their phone records.
Kevin Drum is amused by the move:
Substantively, Obama is making the point that legislation has been introduced before, and can be introduced again, that would restrict DOJ’s ability to target the phone records of media organizations. In 2010, such legislation was introduced, and died when it was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. More generally, media organizations have been lobbying for a federal shield law for decades, and Congress has been resolutely unwilling to pass one, even though nearly every state has a shield law of one sort or another.
Politically, Obama is basically daring Republicans to put their money where their mouths are. You want to make the DOJ leak investigation into an issue of executive overreach? Fine. Then rein it in. Pass a law making it clear what DOJ can and can’t do in leak investigations.
This is a win-win for me. If Republicans take Obama up on his offer, then we get a law I approve of. If they don’t, then they need to shut up. What’s not to like?
And late in the day the Obama administration released a hundred or more pages of emails on Benghazi – and it seems that no one was nefariously misleading the public on the events. It was just interagency feuding that produced those initial talking points that didn’t say much of anything. It really is boring stuff, but the Republicans got what they wanted – the full story. It’s too bad there’s no smoking-gun in there, but sometimes what seems to be evil is just tedious nonsense.
That should be the end of it, but it cannot be. There has to be an overarching narrative about Obama’s woes, and Alexander Burns and John Harris at Politico give it a go:
No contemporary American politician has benefited more from the power of good storytelling than Barack Obama. He vaulted from obscurity to the presidency on the power of narrative – invoking his biography and personal values to make a larger point about how he would lead the nation.
So presumably no one understands more vividly than Obama and his close aides just how toxic and potentially paralyzing his situation has become this spring, as four distinct ethical and policy controversies have simultaneously converged.
Obama’s critics now have a narrative – a way of connecting four discrete episodes to a larger point about this president’s leadership style and values. In other words, they didn’t merely happen on his watch but were in important ways caused by his watch.
And for the first time, this anti-Obama storyline is being presented in a way that might seem reasonable to people who are not already rabid anti-Obama partisans.
Burns and Harris don’t say what the forth scandal is – they assume we know – but it doesn’t matter. The narrative has changed:
The narrative is personal. The uproars over alleged politicization of the IRS and far-reaching attempts to monitor journalists and their sources have not been linked directly to Obama. But it does not strain credulity to suggest that Obama’s well-known intolerance for leaks, and his regular condemnations of conservative dark-money groups, could have filtered down to subordinates.
The narrative is ideological. For five years, this president has been making the case that a growing and activist government has good intentions and can carry these intentions out with competence. Conservatives have warned that government is dangerous, and even good intentions get bungled in the execution. In different ways, the IRS uproar, the Justice Department leak investigations, the Benghazi tragedy and the misleading attempts to explain it, and the growing problems with implementation of health care reform all bolster the conservative worldview…
In Obama’s case, the narrative emerging from this tumultuous week goes something like this: None of these messes would have happened under a president less obsessed with politics, less insulated within his own White House and less trusting of government as an institution.
The blogger BooMan is having none of this:
I don’t know whose narrative this is supposed to belong to. I don’t think the Republicans are going to argue that the problem is that Obama is too trusting in government as an institution. They are going to argue that he’s a fascist dictator who sics the IRS on his political opponents and tramples on the 1st Amendment and the 2nd Amendment, and the 10th, and any other amendments they can think of. And rather than offer a little balance to that unhinged talk, organizations like Politico will write that the president handed them the ammo even though he wasn’t directly responsible for any of it.
How’d he hand them the ammo? He criticized the Citizens United ruling and all the dark money in politics. He didn’t invite enough Washingtonians to dinner. He trusted that the government could do things like expand access to health care and remove some injustices from the system. He agreed with the Republicans that national security leaks should be aggressively investigated.
Such narratives are nonsense, but narratives are what the news folks provide:
As a political writer, I was about ready to hang myself if I had to write one more article about sequestration and the budget. So, I get it. Now we all have something to write about again. I don’t think the general public really understands how important it is that writing be fun. They know that writers are after page-views, but trust me when I say that writing for page-views isn’t fun. What’s fun is writing about stuff that you can get energized about, and that has a lot of carry-over to what people want to read. The damage being done by the Sequester is the most important domestic story in the country right now, along with the cause of the Sequester, which is the total radicalization of the Republican Party. But writing about the closing of health clinics and day care centers and access to cancer treatment and closed airports cannot compare to writing about a BIG SCANDAL.
Also, much like Congress was fine with sequestration until it threatened to delay their flights home, the press has been largely complacent about the growing surveillance powers of the state until it wound up impacting them directly. Now they have a bee in their bonnet.
So, this is how it is going to be now. We’re going to have a brawl about competing narratives, where an unhinged lunatic party accuses the Democrats of fascist socialism and the Democrats try to prevent the defenestration of the federal government.
That’s about it, along with the narratives about Obama’s personal failings, as Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen report on how DC has turned on Obama:
The town is turning on President Obama – and this is very bad news for this White House….
Obama’s aloof mien and holier-than-thou rhetoric have left him with little reservoir of good will, even among Democrats. And the press, after years of being accused of being soft on Obama while being berated by West Wing aides on matters big and small, now has every incentive to be as ruthless as can be.
This White House’s instinctive petulance, arrogance and defensiveness have all worked together to isolate Obama at a time when he most needs a support system…
That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, which may seem to be partisan gloating, but Ed Kilgore explains that:
This open partisanship is excused by the fact that in “this town” (among the “Establishment Democrats” who are a “D.C. Stakeholder”) Democrats aren’t bothering to defend Obama. Which Democrats are we talking about here?
Ah, Politico says who, that Anonymous Insider Democrat:
One Democrat who likes Obama and has been around town for many years said elected officials in his own party are no different than Republicans: They think the president is distant and unapproachable.
“He has never taken the Democratic chairs up to Camp David to have a drink or to have a discussion,” the longtime Washingtonian said. “You gotta stroke people and talk to them. It’s like courting: You have to send flowers and candy and have surprises. It’s a constant process. Now they’re saying, ‘He never talked to me in the good times.’”
Just a week ago, we were all mocking this sort of talk about Obama not having the viciousness or seductiveness to be an effective president. But the new “narrative” of Obama being on the ropes is bringing back all sorts of stupid and discredited criticisms. “This town” has turned on him!
Kilgore simply sighs:
Harris and VandeHei come so close to self-parody that every sentence is like a piñata you could hit from any direction. But make no mistake: this is a declaration of war by elements of the Beltway Media who are determined to show us all they still have the power to “bring down a president,” as they arrogantly used to say about Watergate, and that not only the GOP but the Breitbartian wingnuts have a new ally in the “Vetting” of Barack Obama.
Yeah, they love the new narrative, but there’s the 1998 Sally Quinn original:
With some exceptions, the Washington Establishment is outraged by the president’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal… people want some formal acknowledgment that the president’s behavior has been unacceptable…
THIS IS THEIR HOME. This is where they spend their lives, raise their families, participate in community activities, take pride in their surroundings. They feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.
“It’s much more personal here,” says pollster Geoff Garin. “This is an affront to their world. It affects the dignity of the place where they live and work… Clinton’s behavior is unacceptable. If they did this at the local Elks Club hall in some other community it would be a big cause for concern.”
“He came in here and he trashed the place,” says Washington Post columnist David Broder, “and it’s not his place.”
Steve M at No More Mister Nice blog found that and added this:
The irony of the Quinn piece is that the two living Americans most admired for their work in DC politics are both named… Clinton. If we extend the definition of “DC politics” to include DC political journalism, that’s still true. …
At this moment, it’s hard to imagine that Barack Obama will leave office as widely admired as Bill did in 2001 and Hillary did earlier this year. But I hope it happens, just so Allen and VandeHei can choke on it.
That’s unlikely, as now MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has turned:
President Obama “obviously likes giving speeches more than he does running the executive branch,” Chris Matthews said tonight.
Yes, you read that right: The MSNBC host who in 2008 felt a “thrill going up my leg” after hearing Obama speak has grown disenchanted. Tonight’s episode of Hardball saw Matthews delivering a rare, unforgiving grilling of the president as severe as anything that might appear on Fox News.
“What part of the presidency does Obama like? He doesn’t like dealing with other politicians – that means his own cabinet – that means members of the congress, either party. He doesn’t particularly like the press…. He likes to write the speeches, likes to rewrite what Favreau and the others wrote for the first draft,” Matthews said.
“So what part does he like? He likes going on the road, campaigning, visiting businesses like he does every couple days somewhere in Ohio or somewhere,” Matthews continued. “But what part does he like? He doesn’t like lobbying for the bills he cares about. He doesn’t like selling to the press. He doesn’t like giving orders or giving somebody the power to give orders. He doesn’t seem to like being an executive.”
That’s the new narrative, but then Matthews is an excitable fellow, and that report is also from Politico, who should probably copyright this new narrative. But then Dana Milbank of the Washington Post offers Obama, The Uninterested President:
Nixon was a control freak. Obama seems to be the opposite: He wants no control over the actions of his administration. As the president distances himself from the actions of “independent” figures within his administration, he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes. Certainly, a president can’t know what everybody in his administration is up to – but he can take responsibility, he can fire people and he can call a stop to foolish actions such as wholesale snooping into reporters’ phone calls.
There’s something in the air – a new narrative explaining everything. Matthews had Milbank on his program to confirm that. It’s the new story, although Daniel McCarthy at the American Conservative adds this twist:
The most basic criticism of Obama turns out to be the truest. A one-term Senator doesn’t have much preparation for governing anything – yes, a risk that Republicans will have to keep in mind with Marco Rubio and Rand Paul – and government under Obama often seems to be run by functionaries. It’s all too plausible that Obama didn’t know, or care to know, about the IRS applying discriminatory standards against right-leaning 501(c)(4) groups, and his attitude toward Eric Holder’s Justice Department grabbing Associated Press phone records appears similarly blasé.
This is rather unlike the disgraced president to whom many Republicans want to compare the incumbent.
It seems that we’re supposed to miss the Nixon fellow now, but then Jean Mackenzie calls this Obama’s Nixon Moment:
As recently as last week the Republicans were intent on portraying Benghazi as a scandal on the scale of Watergate.
Indeed, comparisons with the incident that ultimately drove President Richard Nixon from office have been cropping up more and more frequently.
George Will wrote in the Washington Post that the IRS scandal had “echoes of Watergate,” and hinted that it should have the same outcome:
“Forty years ago this week … the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon’s administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities,” he wrote.
He was not the only one.
She has the list. Obama, like Nixon, will fall, even if they’re completely different? Sometimes likely narratives collide, and coming out at the end of the month is the new Ruth O’Brien book Out of Many, One: Obama and the Third American Political Tradition:
Bearing traces of Baruch Spinoza, John Dewey, and Saul Alinsky, Obama’s progressivism embraces the ideas of mutual reliance and collective responsibility, and adopts an interconnected view of the individual and the state. So, while Obama might emphasize difference, he rejects identity politics, which can create permanent minorities and diminish individual agency. Analyzing Obama’s major legislative victories – financial regulation, healthcare, and the stimulus package – O’Brien shows how they reflect a stakeholder society that neither regulates in the manner of the New Deal nor deregulates. Instead, Obama focuses on negotiated rule making and allows executive branch agencies to fill in the details when dealing with a deadlocked Congress. Similarly, his commitment to difference and his resistance to universal mandates underlie his reluctance to advocate for human rights as much as many on the Democratic left had hoped.
Huh? Spinoza? Mark Schmitt reviews the book and offers this way of seeing the possible narrative here:
Obama’s presidency has been the first real test of a politics focused on reform and democratic participation rather than traditional bipartisan bargaining – and it has failed. Over the last four years, American politics split sharply into the two primary traditions: the first a sort of hyper-Lockeanism represented not just by the Tea Party but even by Mitt Romney’s division of the country into “makers and takers,” the second a demand – driven by circumstances and crisis – for a much more active, expansive government role in the economy. Economic issues, once a natural zone of compromise, began to seem more like social issues, matters of irreconcilable absolutes. There wasn’t much room in the middle, and for a period, Obama’s discursive strategy seemed wholly irrelevant.
Obama tried a new narrative. It didn’t work, and now everyone seems to have reverted to an old narrative that’s comfortable – the second term president is brought down by massive scandals, as people find out, finally, that he had been a jerk all along. Obama will soon be defiantly proclaiming “I am not a crook!”
It’s the new old story. It’s useful, if you don’t think too hard about things. It’s the easy way to make sense of the random, and if everyone agrees on the story, that’s the news, even if it isn’t.