Sunday, July 6, 2014

Toward an early, hastily written, and poorly researched first draft of a history of the Obama presidency

I used to have a soft spot for Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Several years ago she wrote an interesting column lamenting the decline of journalistic standards in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and internet. Even if the media was pretty liberal during America's golden postwar years, she suggested, newspapers and TV news outlets at least had serious standards -- as she put it, there was always a fat man in suspenders fact-checking. But in the past twenty years, the fat man lost his job. (I tried to find this column but could not.)

Unfortunately, it now seems that Noonan has become a professional polarizer like all the rest. Her recent column in the Wall Street Journal, "The Daydream and the Nightmare," was a particularly egregious exercise in half-truths, innuendo, and intellectual dishonesty -- a perfect example of everything that's wrong with today's politicized media, on both sides of the aisle. It was enough to even break through my layers of apathy. (I hope you can link to the article here but I can never tell with the Journal's paywall). I also found this column interesting because it's undoubtedly a preview of some of the debates we historians will be having about the Obama administration for the decades to come.

Noonan begins by cherry-picking a poll with especially bad numbers for Obama. He is a relatively unpopular president -- no doubt about that -- though it's worth noting that until a few weeks ago, when Iraq went to pot (and don't forget the root causes of that; even Noonan herself recently conceded that both administrations are to blame) his approval ratings were hanging around in the mid-40s, even in the Right-leaning Gallup poll. [Blogger's note: on the day that this post went up, Obama's Gallup number was actually 45%.] Hardly good numbers, but not horrible, and better than W.'s at this stage in the presidency. It's also worth mentioning that Obama remains one of the most popular politicians in the nation. We live in strange, bitter times, during which most Americans have a deep distrust of all elites, and Gallup recently put the approval rating for Congress at 7% (7!). That's important context for Obama's numbers.

Noonan then notes that only Americans under 50 are proud of Obama, while "those over 50, who have of course the longest experienced sense of American history, were ashamed." This is an incredibly lazy statement. So Americans over 50 are always correct, and their experienced sense of American history (whatever that is) is the main reason why they dislike Obama?! I guess she didn't see the need to control for over-50s skewing Republican. And I guess older Americans' much lower support for gay rights and other forms of social change (I won't even mention race here) has nothing to do with the differing opinions by age. Major publications should not tolerate this kind of sloppy use of data, even by famous contributors. I think even Joe Morgan covering baseball for ESPN -- "I don't trust the numbers" -- had a better empirical mind. (Actually, I miss the team of Morgan and Miller ...). Maybe one of the biggest differences between those under and over 50 is familiarity with quantitative analysis.

Noonan then writes in her second paragraph, "We all know the reasons behind the numbers. The scandals that suggest poor stewardship and, in the case of the IRS, destructive political mischief." I'm not a lawyer, but this comment strikes me as close to libel, given there is currently no evidence whatsoever linking the White House to the IRS. Of course, she does just enough to cover herself, beginning the paragraph about Obama and then mentioning "political mischief" sans actor in a way that clearly implicates him without directly doing so. This kind of innuendo and wordplay in major publications is dangerous and dispiriting.

Healthcare comes next. The comment that Obamacare "continues to wreak havoc in marketplaces" is at best wild exaggeration given employment has come all the way back and the stock markets are at all-time highs. I notice, btw, that we hear less of this argument from Republicans than we did in the spring. Remember all that talk about the massive unemployment that Obamacare would cause? Hmm, let's look at the latest unemployment chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ... nice and neat downward linear trend anyone? It's almost like our $17 trillion economy has a momentum of its own apart from a law that has increased insurance coverage by 5%. 

Instead of such partisan hyperbole, it would be nice if op-ed writers would provide some balanced information -- an honest assessment of Benthamian (what a great word) utility -- even as they argue for one side. Obviously Obamacare produced winners and losers, like most government policies, and helped some companies while hurting others. Clearly some smaller firms retarded hiring as a result, and others -- like my sister's dental supply company -- benefited because the insurance costs for their employees started to come down (which was the whole point of the Republican-originated idea of using a marketplace to expand insurance). Obamacare has likely added jobs in the healthcare sector -- that radical socialist publication Forbes noted that the industry has gained 1,000,000 jobs since passage of the law -- and it will also cut down on the "job trap" by which people can't leave their current jobs -- can't try something new, start a business, etc. -- because they desperately need their employer's insurance. Oh, and fewer people will die in this country from a lack of healthcare. Perhaps Noonan could have mentioned some of these points as part of a more honest discussion of the law's many flaws.

The most outrageous stuff comes next. If there is one GOP talking point that drives me the craziest, it's that, as Noonan writes, Obama is "incapable of working with Congress." OMG -- can she really write this without mentioning how much the GOP leadership (to say nothing of the Tea Party rank and file) detests Obama and how they refused to work with him from day one? Um, remember when not a single House Republican voted for the Stimulus (the Stimulus begun by W.)? As I've written about before, there is no doubt that Obama's inexperience on the Hill hurt him. But can someone tell me what "working with Congress" would look like right now? Seriously. When they are suing him and hoping to impeach him if they win back the Senate in the fall? Also as I've mentioned before, it's no longer 1961, when congressmen used to drink together across party lines to cut deals. Even if Obama had LBJ's skills, which he surely does not, he would not be able to take people on rides on Air Force One and secure votes, the way LBJ used to. Thanks to the culture wars, gerrymandering, the aforementioned news cycle, etc. etc, Congress is about the most polarized it's ever been. Elizabeth Drew wrote about all of this very well in a piece called "Obama and the Myth of Arm Twisting." I'm sure Obama hates that he lost the 2010 elections, especially given, as the free-market-oriented Freakonomics blog conceded, "in a survey of leading economists conducted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 92 percent agreed that the stimulus succeeded in reducing the jobless rate. On the harder question of whether the benefit exceeded the cost, more than half thought it did, one in three was uncertain, and fewer than one in six disagreed." But lost them he did, and a result we have the kind of stalemate that Madison imagined. This is more about a divided Congress in hyper-partisan times than it is about Obama.

I don't work in the White House, but I've written about Obama's aloofness before, and I have a feeling that Noonan's complaint that he has become even more aloof is largely accurate. But again, it's remarkably hyperbolic to write he "seems disinterested, disengaged almost to the point of disembodied." Notably absent from the column, for example is any mention of climate change, one of the defining issues of our era. The president is hardly "running out the clock" here. That the mainstream Republican party is now cowtowing to the anti-science (or, at least, fossil-fuel-industry-funded) fringe of the party is deeply disturbing, but it does not change the fact that the White House just launched a major climate change initiative. If you think that a more skilled Obama would "work with" Oklahoma Senator Inhofe on climate change, I have some land on the Oklahoma/Kansas border to sell you. Did everyone see that the last four Republican EPA chiefs just told Congress to act on climate change? This is cotton-candy-fantasy-land territory we're entering now, as my high school baseball coach loved to put it.

The final parts of Noonan's column are quite fascinating. She writes, "The world seems to disappoint him." I agree. He should be. Many progressives are disappointed that one of the two parties in our great country has chosen to disregard science, that many Americans still think we can remake the world in our image at gunpoint, and that old-fashioned racism (a small but not meaningless part of the anti-Obama backlash) is depressingly resilient. And I'd say "So sue me" as well when it was clear that no matter what I did or said, the Republicans were going to sue me. Dumb comment, but meaningful? Does anyone really believe that playing nice with the Republicans right now would prevent this lawsuit? (I have some land about two hours west of Salt Lake you might like ...) But I might add that this too shall pass. Conservatives and progressives are both very disappointed at this moment in time, and sour about the future of the nation, but we've been through this many times, and we'll come through it again.

Finally, Noonan argues that Obama is waiting for history to vindicate him. I agree with this claim, as well. But it's not that Obama has some sort of Abraham Lincoln complex, as she stretches to argue. It's that the long-term direction and demographics of this nation -- and the fact that Americans have come to embrace most modest extensions of the welfare state since Social Security -- favor his legacy. What Noonan needs to do is to get out of her over-50, Republican, and suburban luxury world of Great Falls, Virginia, and spend some time in, say, Columbia Heights, D.C., or any of America's youthful (and, I might add, economically dynamic) cities -- or even at the farmers' market in Salt Lake, home to the awesome flatbad of peas below -- places where it's unimaginable to the majority of young people that gay marriage is a big deal, or that companies should work hard to make it hard for women to get birth control under the trumped up guise of religious freedom. Then she might understand better why American politics are becoming increasingly age-stratified. And she might better understand that history favors Obama because the Tea Party is the last gasp of rural America, and rural America will continue to diminish in political importance in the years to come. Obama knows this will happen, and that his stances on gay rights and climate change will in fact be vindicated in the years to come, no matter how much golf be plays during the final years of his diminished presidency.


  1. (My comment disappeared when I clicked "Publish," so forgive me if two version of this end up appearing!).
    Excellent post, Derek -- my favorite of all of your posts. And, yes, that is partly because I completely agree with you since we are cut from the same political cloth, but it's also because I am so disheartened by the decline of journalism. Journalistic standards should not be the same as soap box standard. Punditry is not journalism. I loved Nicholas Kristof as Beijing Bureau Chief for the New York Times and I think he richly deserved his Pulitzer. But once he became a columnist? Yuck...even though he and I seem to be very much on the same side politically. But how about some serious and balanced research for columns, just as much as articles? And stringent fact-checking. I find the current state of journalism so disheartening.

  2. You had a soft spot for Peggy Noonan? :)

    Excellent stuff and of course I agree about the Tea Party and rural America. The scary thing is, our system favors rural America so that no matter how much urbanization occurs flyover country will still exert more influence on policy than it should.

    Add to that, Thomas Frank is full of sh*t. Google median incomes for farming households. Rural households are well-above the national median in income and are not voting against their own economic interests. Logic dictates that progressive policies are not going to emerge for a long time and probably not without a constitutional convention. The Repubs chances of ever winning another presidential race is the wildcard (hint: they won't anytime soon, I'm not even worried about the 2016 race and will take any odds on a Democrat right now).

  3. Thanks a lot Andrew (who, random reader, you should know is from a tiny Midwestern farming town ...). I agree that Frank misses this obvious fact, but What's the Matter with Kansas is still a good book. (And also, the Baffler, the magazine he edits, has a lot of fun iconoclastic stuff). I tend to agree with you about 2016, but I am not quite as optimistic as you. This is totally unscientific (he tells the political scientist) but check out the list of states by 2012 margin here (the second graph): The weakest margins of victory for Obama, starting from closest, were Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. The weakest margins of victory for Romney were North Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri. Doesn't it just "feel" more plausible that the GOP can pick up Florida and Ohio and opposed to the Dems picking up North Carolina and Georgia? That said, Hillary crushes.