The Consensus on Obama
For a long time now, broadcasters have been trying to make television interactive. Viewers can call in opinions, some of which will be read on the air, though it is not clear what filters the networks use to decide which opinions are acceptable enough to broadcast. Viewers can even call in questions for candidates who are on the debate circuit, though the same caveat about filters holds, as it does for which of the things going on in the blogosphere will be picked up by the networks and other wide audience news outlets.
But there is a form of interactivity that is already in operation if it is noticed as such. The talking heads that populate the cable news and the Sunday network talk shows can be divided into two groups, the members of each group talking mostly to one another. There is Fox News, which is in the minority, and there is the majority, which are all the others, and I can say of the majority group (because I do not follow Fox News) that they are constantly refining and bouncing off what one another have to say and so create something of a collective consciousness which grows and takes an ever more sophisticated and definitive view of ongoing events in real time, while those events are still going on and when a new take on what has been going on will have an impact on the way these events play themselves out. Think of the criticism of Herman Cainís sexual improprieties, which has just stopped dead, dropped for lack of evidence despite, I suspect, the best attempts of the networks to corroborate the charges of his accusers. Instead, the networks have all moved on to Cainís brain freeze, perhaps because Rick Perry provides a precedent and so they can use that to question someoneís competence, until someone comes along and discredits the method or decides to be more forthright and just declare that the candidate is not well informed whether or not he managed to blurt out a canned response. The wheels of network and cable news decision making are whirring, and even if the process is not made public, the results are, and so we have learned something, by universal silence, about the charges against Cain.
A more important example is the Penn State sexual scandal, networks and cable always quick to jump on a sexual story even as they are slow to deal with other kinds of scandals, such as college tuition hikes. What accounts for that? Why do you not ask the Ivies about their pricing policies or how they use tuition breaks to lure students to create diversity rather than to insure merit? Too complicated an issue? Not for all those people sending their kids to less than Ivy level schools for hideously high tuitions.
But back to Penn State. There was a rolling consensus that gelled in a few days last week about the assistant coach who had come across the sodomy of a ten year old boy that was taking place in the showers. First, he was a whistleblower; then someone on a cable show observed that he was, after all, a football player and so could have stepped in to end the rape, rather than just, as he claimed, report it to the campus police. The Governor of Pennsylvania then says that the assistant coach may have met his legal obligation, but not his moral obligation. Then Michelle Bachmann proclaims her heroism by saying that she might be a small woman, but that she would have rushed in to stop it. And then David Brooks brings the sequence to an end, closing the loop, by correctly observing that we should not get all righteous about what we would have done under the circumstances given that many people miss the boat on intervening when by all rights they should have. He cites the Holocaust and Kitty Genovese. If there is an obvious riposte to be made, then someone in the media-sphere will make it. As it stands now, the assistant coach has been convicted in the court of public opinion of having not intervened in a significant enough way. That is pretty harsh a verdict because we donít know what actually happened, and the claims he makes to having informed the police are not honored because the Penn State Campus Police refuse to be interviewed about the matter. But it is the verdict that will stand unless there is a great deal of evidence to overturn it, just as the judgment that Al Gore lost Florida stood because NBC said that was what happened and it became an uphill battle to prove otherwise.
A major case of a rolling consensus developing in politics is occurring right now with regard to the Super-committee which was established by Congress to come up with about two trillion dollars in savings over the next ten years. It was the price Obama paid for getting a rise in the debt limit so that the government would not close down. That legislation was seen at the time by a consensus of commentators, including me, as a failure by the President. He had caved in to the Tea Party. He did not get a grand bargain even though he had been willing to take three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in revenue enhancement. So all he got was this. Those in his corner said that at least it pushed the next debt ceiling increase beyond the next election and that there were mechanisms whereby a failure of the Super-committee to arrive at an agreement would trigger cuts in defense spending and entitlement spending that would lead the Super-committee to come to an agreement that would withstand the House voting against it. But the President had been embarrassed. Rolled once, rolled forever.
The consensus that is emerging now is that it wasnít such a bad deal after all. First, the President did get the debt ceiling raised and it will turn out that he didnít have to pay anything for that except for the blow to his reputation that resulted in his losing his image as a capable and competent President, never mind that his handling of foreign policy or anything else the Tea Party has no say about has been masterful. Talking heads point out that any of the cuts that would result from the failure of the Super-committee to come to an agreement wouldnít take place until after the election and by then a stronger Democratic representation in the House and Senate could see to it that those cuts never went into effect. Moreover, the Congress could, right now, in December, simply vote not to allow those ďautomaticĒ cuts to take place. The result would be that all that resulted from the Presidentís cave in was that he got the debt ceiling increase. Moreover, as Paul Krugman and others have pointed out, it would be a good thing if the Super-committeeís work came to naught. We donít need any budget cuts at the moment. So Obama will have played the Tea Party, but the nagging question is how he is going to get credit for that so that his poll numbers increase and he can get reelected.
This election is crucial, as is every other one. In this case, it is crucial because the composition of Congress will determine whether sane economic measures are undertaken or whether we will be beholden to those Republicans who are sane to try to make the measures they will be pushed to take somewhat palatable. Mitt might be good at that because he is so good at recasting his positions so that you donít know what he has agreed to even just after he says what he has agreed to. But those are bad games to play. It is likely that there will arise during the next administration a crisis where the American people will have to judge whether the President was right in doing what he did on the basis of their confidence that he has good judgment and is a man of character. Even if Mitt would handle a crisis with Iran with as much dexterity and clarity as he claims to command, who would believe he was doing that? FDR could move from being Dr. Fix the Depression to Dr. Win the War because he was credible. A President canít govern without that. Look at George Bush II, whom the press tried to build up after 9/11 as a leader, and who then turned wars over to Chaney and allowed Katrina to be blamed on Brownie. No one wants to go through that again.
Obama is a careful steward of his office, as well as a success in that he got his legislative program through, even if he did not prevail on debt reduction and tax inequalities. We will see how the battle over the Bush tax cuts goes this December when he has to figure out a way to drop the tax breaks for people making over $250,000 a year without dropping the tax breaks for people making under that. What kind of deal will he cut? He is not good at cutting deals for which he can take credit. Nobody liked the haggling that went into passing the Affordable Health Act, remember? But it is now law, isnít it? Obamaís negotiating style and not just the unemployment rate could stand in the way of his reelection. We will have to see how the media consensus on Obama builds over the course of the next twelve months.