Published February 10, 2010
In response to my column last week about President Obama's complaints regarding the New Media and the “echo chamber” in Washington, I received a note from a journalist whom I respect and who posed these questions to me:
Couldn't it be that Obama genuinely wants to ratchet up the civility in our national conversation . . . and is merely pointing out that cable television news is mainly about politics, shallow arguments, bickering, and at times name-calling? Couldn't the president, in other words, be sincere?
He went on to ask about the New Media's role in “accelerat[ing] the polarization in our culture, which is not a good thing. Couldn't there also be a real concern about the state of political discourse in America these days?”
Those are fair questions and worth taking up, both as they relate to President Obama and to the New Media. On the matter of the president, it's probably worth noting that during the 2008 presidential campaign I wrote favorably about Barack Obama in part because unlike Hillary Clinton and especially John Edwards, Obama had a message that, at its core, was about unity and hope rather than division and resentment:
[Candidate Obama] comes across, in his person and manner, as nonpartisan. He has an unsurpassed ability to (seemingly) transcend politics. Even when he disagrees with people, he doesn't seem disagreeable.
What is disappointing about President Obama is that he has governed in a manner so at odds with his core campaign commitments. Mr. Obama has become the most polarizing first-year president in the history of Gallup.
He has allowed Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid in particular to promote a deeply partisan agenda, shutting out Republicans at almost every conceivable point. Depending on your politics, you may think that is a wise thing or a disastrous thing. But it is not a unifying thing. And declaring war on Fox News and intentionally targeting and elevating Rush Limbaugh, in an effort to make him the “face” of the GOP, are hardly the actions of a man who has reconciliation on his mind. Neither is selecting Rahm Emanuel — one of the most relentlessly partisan figures in Washington — as your chief of staff.
These are not the actions of a man who said that he would “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” Nor has Obama specifically called to task anyone on the Democratic/liberal side for incivility — including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who accused those protesting President Obama's health-care proposals of being “evil mongers”; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who claimed that those attending town hall meetings in the summer were acting in “un-American” ways; the DNC for running ads describing those showing up at those town hall meetings as engaging in “mob activity;” Democratic Rep. Brian Baird declaring that opponents of ObamaCare reminded him of Timothy McVeigh; Rep. Alan Grayson telling former Vice President Cheney to “shut the f*** up” and declaring that the GOP health care plan consisted of telling people, “Don't get sick” — and if they do, to die quickly; and Obama himself referring to those who disagree with him as liars during his speech to a joint session of Congress in September 2009.
Just as troubling is that the Obama administration has repeatedly misrepresented the facts about his health care proposal (for more, see here and here) as well as the number of jobs his administration has allegedly “saved and created,” about banning lobbyists in his administration, and much more. Then there is the president's incessant willingness to blame his failures on his predecessor seemingly every day, an act that long ago became tiresome. All of which is to say that Mr. Obama's record undermines the claim that he wants to elevate civil and high-minded public discourse.
What he wants is to get his way, and when voices of dissent speak out against him, he gets irritated and prickly. In their book The Battle for America 2008, Haynes Johnson and the outstanding political reporter Dan Balz wrote this: “[Chief political aide David] Axelrod also warned that Obama's confessions of youthful drug use, described in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, would be used against him. “This is more than an unpleasant inconvenience,” he wrote. “It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate opponent.
That is, I think, at the heart of Obama's complaints about the “echo chamber.”
As for the merits and de-merits of the New Media itself: of course there are downsides to it. It has, after all, given rise to the likes of Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, which is not a good thing. Many people do view news simply to reinforce their pre-existing views. The tone of the Internet can be ad hominem and even viscous. And the New Media undoubtedly does add to the polarization of our culture, though probably not as much as most people imagine.
It's worth bearing in mind, though, that American politics has always involved bickering and name-calling, often to a degree far beyond what we're witnessing now. For example, the campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800 is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest in American history. One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols.
Politics has always been a tough and rambunctious profession; we shouldn't romanticize the past in our effort to condemn the present state of affairs.
On the plus side, the New Media has broken a monopoly that existed for decades — and which, with very few exceptions, provided the public with essentially the same narrative and interpretation of events. Today there is an almost endless supply of different sources for the public to look to and consider. Some of those sources are irresponsible, but many of them are superb. We are far more informed than we were in the Age of Cronkite, Brokaw, and Jennings. And there is now a check on the mainstream press in a way that simply wasn't the case a quarter century ago. To name just one example: CBS anchor Dan Rather's use of forged documents in his 60 Minutes piece aimed at President Bush simply would not have been exposed in a previous era.
There are plenty of smart, thoughtful people on cable news and the Internet — voices that would have been silent a generation ago. Arguments and points of view are being aired and vigorously engaged, facts are being challenged, and lines of rea
soning are being called into question to a degree we have never seen before.
Are there excesses? Of course. Few things in political life are unalloyed goods; that is true of the New Media as well. But in a self-governing nation like ours, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
There is certainly room for improvement. But Mr. President, heal thyself. Barack Obama certainly has the capacity to positively shape the direction of public discourse. I hope he does. But based on the last year, it's fair to wonder if he ever will.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.