Press secretaries tend to be like broken clocks: They’re always going to say the same thing, and every once in a while, it happens to be the right thing. Case in point: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who early last week accused the D.C.-based media of being out of touch with the concerns and opinions of the rest of the country.
“You know,” Gibbs said, “there’s a conventional wisdom to what’s going on in America via Washington, and there’s the reality of what’s happening in America.”
The cynical interpretation of this statement would be that President Obama is merely resorting to the time-honored tradition of media bashing—his own variation of Spiro Agnew’s timeless attack on the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Jonathan Martin, a former National Review staffer who now writes for Politico, made exactly this case a few days ago.
“Pitting Washington Insiders against Real People, as Obama and his top aides have increasingly done in recent weeks, is often a refuge for presidents who have suffered missteps or drawn critical coverage, particularly in their early weeks in office,” Martin wrote.
In this case, though, such cynicism calls to mind Harry Truman’s old retort that “I’m not giving them hell—I’m just telling the truth and they think it’s hell.” Gibbs wasn’t actually engaging in defensive spin—he was making an accurate observation that was taken as defensive spin.
Fresh evidence of this emerged on Thursday, in a new Associated Press poll. Asked to assess how much Obama had done to cooperate with Republicans in Congress, 62 percent of respondents said that he’d done “about the right amount,” while another 6 percent said he’d done too much. At the same time, 64 percent said that Congressional Republicans had done “not enough” to cooperate with the president.
These numbers, on top of numerous recent surveys that have found remarkable durability in Obama’s popularity, seem to validate Gibbs’ main point, since so much airtime has been handed over this past month to the Congressional G.O.P.’s concerted assault on Obama’s stimulus package and his governing style. And, all too often, D.C.-based news outlets, particularly the national cable networks, have used the G.O.P. attacks to frame their stories about Obama’s presidency, highlighting the partisan rancor in the House and Senate and the supposed end of Obama’s honeymoon.
Since Obama’s inauguration, a pattern has emerged. The new president, in word and action, has reached out to Republicans. He feted John McCain with a dinner the night before he was sworn in, paid a visit on the House Republican Conference in the U.S. House, met individually with Republican senators interested in crafting a stimulus compromise, and even invited a freshman Republican House member to fly with him on Air Force One to an event at a Caterpillar factory in Peoria, Illinois.
The Republicans, with the exception of three senators, have responded with words—but no action. Their campaign against the stimulus relied on over-the-top and often misleading demagoguery and, when Obama and the Democrats refused to accede to their every wish, they responded with a campaign to discredit the process—and the president.
“If this is going to be bipartisanship, the country’s screwed,” cried Senator Lindsey Graham. “I know bipartisanship when I see it. I’ve participated in it. I’ve gone back home and gotten primary opponents because I wanted to be bipartisan. There’s nothing about this process that’s been bipartisan. This is not ‘change we can believe in.'”
When the stimulus package cleared the House for the final time (without a single Republican vote), John Boehner, the House Republican Leader, railed that “All the talk about bipartisanship that we have heard over the last several months went down the drain.”
Republicans, of course, are free to pursue this strategy. The problem is that much of the media, from the moment the G.O.P. began objecting, has behaved as if these protests are registering with the masses—hence the endless declarations on all of the cable news channels that Obama’s honeymoon is over.
By far, though, the prevailing attitude in the D.C.-based media was best expressed by NBC’s Chuck Todd, who actually asked Gibbs if Obama would veto his own stimulus bill because it didn’t attract significant Republican support. That was only a few days after Obama was sworn-in, but it set the mood perfectly for what was to come.
To watch the coverage of the stimulus debate on cable news was to be overwhelmed by an army of Republican talking heads, each spouting the same talking points about Obama’s failure to live up to his promises of bipartisanship. But the polling data seems clearer by the day: This is not the conversation most Americans are having. Overwhelmingly, they are satisfied with Obama’s efforts to bridge the partisan gap. In the A.P. poll, just 30 percent of respondents said Obama wasn’t doing enough to work with Republicans. Tellingly, this is the exact same number of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans. Among independents, support for Obama and his style remains very high.
Granted, if Obama’s popularity does plummet one of these days, Gibbs’ official response will almost certainly involve blaming the media in some way. But when you’re right, you’re right—and right now, Gibbs’ argument is pretty sound.