Yet again, congressional Republicans have devoted time and energy to hitting the Obama administration over the incident in Benghazi, Libya, where a diplomat and several other State Department employees were killed in an assault by a heavily-armed group. The administration insists that this was a tragic accident, and an investigation has cleared officials of wrongdoing or serious mistakes. But Republicans continue to believe that this was mishandled, to the extent that administration officials are covering up key information.
President Obama exercising his charm, to no avail. (White House photo)
You'd think that if you're an experienced political reporter for the Washington Post, after a while you would have acquired a sense of how things happen in the nation's capital these days—how legislation gets passed, how the different power centers in town relate to each other, and what factors do and don't matter in determining the outcome of events. Yet for some unfathomable reason, we're still talking about whether Barack Obama can exercise his "personal charm" or "powers of persuasion" on members of the Republican party, convincing them to vote for things they're otherwise inclined against. Here's an article from today's Post:
“Why couldn’t Barack Obama pass gun control?” is a bad question. Not because there isn’t a story to tell about the new push for gun regulations, but because Obama isn’t the main character. On questions like gun control and immigration reform, the president has a say, but the show belongs to Congress and all of its dysfunctions.
President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.
Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.
From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often...well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.
Most observers, with the exception of those who fervently believe in a “colorblind” America, accept the role race plays in perceptions of Barack Obama. His blackness influences supporters—generating enthusiasm for his candidacy—and detractors, from right-wing provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh. to left-wing critics like Cornel West.
Let's be honest here: Congressional Republicans really, really dislike Barack Obama. Yes, they disagree with his agenda, and sometimes they engage in some half-sincere posturing against him for effect, but you can be pretty sure that deep down they just can't stand him. Which is fine—lots of us felt the same way about George W. Bush. But at times, their dislike only serves to make them look silly.
The New York Times's reports today that President Obama has invited a dozen GOP senators out to dinner, in an effort to get around Republican leadership and build support for a new agreement on long-term deficit reduction. As Greg Sargent writes for the Washington Post, "It’s not hard to figure out what Obama is telling these Senators: He’s telling them what his actual deficit reduction plan contains — a mix of real entitlement cuts and new revenues."
If the public is unhappy with anything, it's the crisis-driven governing of the last two years. Between the debt ceiling stand-off—when House Republicans threatened to sink the economy if they didn't get spending cuts—and the recent fiscal cliff battle—where, again, Republicans threatened economic disaster if they didn't get spending cuts—the United States has lurched from fight to fight, crisis to crisis, in an ongoing game of domestic brinksmanship.
In New York magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a long article about the failure of the War on Drugs, in which he says, "Without really acknowledging it, we are beginning to experiment with a negotiated surrender." This is in reference to the recently passed marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, which will likely be followed by other states in upcoming elections. Hanging over these policy changes is the still-to-be-determined reaction of the Obama administration, which hasn't yet said whether it plans to send DEA agents to crack down on the businesses these laws allow for, or the growing operations they'll produce. And I'm beginning to suspect that the administration will try to set some kind of policy course intended to be as low-key and neutral as possible, neither giving the two states the green light to proceed as their new laws envision, nor embarking on some kind of dramatic and visible crackdown.
Mitt Romney seems to have decided to run an entire presidential campaign on quibbling semantic arguments, which is certainly a novel approach, but not one I'd recommend for future candidates. It's not that every campaign doesn't spend way too much time complaining about the words their opponent says, but he really has taken it to a totally different level; every day seems to bring a new expression of feigned outrage at something Barack Obama said.
Over at MSNBC's "Lean Forward" blog, I have a new piece about one of these inane back-and-forths that happened last week, when Obama said he learned you couldn't change Washington from the inside, and Romney got really peeved and promised he would change it from the inside. My point was essentially that if I hear one more pundit talk about the good old days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill would argue during the day, then in the evening share a beer and bellow some old Irish sea shanties, I think I'm going to lose it:
Have you ever heard of Ben Swann, a Toledo reporter/analyst on local Fox news? I hadn't. But someone pointed me to one of Swann's recent four-minute segments, "Reality Check," in which he asks Obama how he justified having a kill list that includes American citizens who've never been charged with a crime—and then concisely analyzes both the constitutional issues and the reasons the national news media are giving Obama a pass. It is well worth your four minutes of watching time.
At times, Barack Obama's speech last night felt like a State of the Union address—a lengthy recitation of issues, one after another, during which you could imagine pundits writing "Booooring!" in their notes, and then you'd find out the next day that the public loved it. But the limitations of the speech demonstrated the difficulty Obama has as an incumbent. The expectations are high any time he gives a major speech, but last night's was a reminder that a large part of what made Obama such an effective orator in 2008 was particular to the role of challenger, and something that simply can't be duplicated now.
To put last night in context, we have to go back to 2008. In the last election, Obama's speeches had not just a second-person perspective but an active second-person perspective, talking not only about who you are but what you are doing. This was absolutely critical to giving his campaign that feeling of history in the making, and history as something participatory. It tapped into a deep yearning among all Americans but particularly among liberals. Here's something I wrote about it at the time...
The early part of last night’s DNC TV show couldn’t match Tuesday night. As I wrote yesterday, that first night rocked out over the body issues: health care for all, equal pay for women, open LGBT military service, repro rights, equal marriage laws—the human values of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. The speakers preached, and the crowd roared. The night was, as Robert Kuttner writes, a full-on embrace of the social issues that the Republicans have been attacking for decades. You hate homos? We love them! You think women are lying sluts? We believe in women’s integrity! It was awe-inspiring and energizing.