What happened to the most powerful man on earth? That’s the question Dana Milbank poses in his Washington Post column yesterday. Milbank’s query was triggered by Obama’s evident inability on Monday to use the bully pulpit to halt the free fall of stock prices in the wake of Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the U.S. credit rating last week. Obama gave a public statement designed to reassure the markets, but as Milbank writes, “When he began his speech (and as cable news channels displayed for viewers), the Dow Jones industrials stood at 11,035. As he talked, the average fell below 11,000 for the first time in nine months, en route to a 635-point drop for the day, the worst since the 2008 crash.” Although Milbank acknowledged that Obama probably shouldn’t be blamed for the slide, he then goes ahead and blames him anyway: “It’s not exactly fair to blame Obama for the rout: Almost certainly, the markets ignored him. And that’s the problem: The most powerful man in the world seems strangely powerless, and irresolute, as larger forces bring down the country and his presidency.”
Milbank’s comments are a reminder, if anyone needed one, that the favorable – at times fawning – media coverage Obama received in the 2008 campaign has long since disappeared, at least among the White House press corps. More than two years into Obama’s presidency, the White House press corps has resumed its more familiar role as nattering nabobs of negativism (to recycle Vice President Agnew’s famous description of the Nixon-era press, using words penned by Nixon speechwriter William Safire).
But what I found most interesting about Milbank’s column, and of the press conference held yesterday that Milbank describes, is not confirmation that White House journalists have turned on the President. Rather, it is how the press corps contributes to the already inflated expectations regarding the president’s very limited power to influence the economy.
After an initial segment dealing with education policy, Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney opened the press conference up to further questions. Reporters immediately zeroed in on what the president was going to do about the falling stock market and the dismal economy more generally. Nora O’Donnell led the way by wondering why Obama did not seem to demonstrate a greater sense of urgency in confronting the economic crisis. Ever helpful, she suggested Obama might want to call Congress, now in recess, back to Washington for an emergency session.
“Q The President said our problems are imminently solvable, and he talked about a renewed sense of urgency. Why not call Congress back to work?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that what we can do, after the process we just went through, is make clear that when Congress does get back from its recess, it is very clear –
Q That doesn’t sound very urgent.
MR. CARNEY: Well –
Q I mean, the Dow dropped below 11,000. Where’s the sense of urgency?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think there is a great deal of sense — a great sense of urgency here about the need to continue to work to get our fiscal house in order, create jobs and grow the economy. The reality that we live in is that this is — as set up by the founders — is a government that has different branches with different amounts of power, and we need to work together to get significant things done, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Carney’s reminder that the President worked within a system of shared powers fell on deaf ears. Instead, O’Donnell’s suggestion to call Congress back from recess was echoed by other reporters. Here is NBC’s Chuck Todd:
“Q Jay, there are, I think, six specific things that the President has been calling Congress to do on the jobs front — free trade agreements, the infrastructure bank, patent reform, unemployment insurance, payroll tax cut — that’s seven. [Seven? I count five. But never mind.] Why not bring Congress back now to just do that? I understand the answer to Norah’s question about the urgency on the debt, that you’re going to let the committee see if it actually works –
MR. CARNEY: Well, it seems we’re getting a drumbeat here to call Congress back from its recess.
Q — but why not — well, it does seem that the markers are crashing; we’re now below 500 points since this briefing began. I mean — I’m not implying any relation, just that — I mean, the point is, the economy — the American public seems to be in a little bit of a panic, and yet Washington is like, well, we’re going to stand back and wait until school starts.”
Call Congress back to Washington? Did any of these reporters read the S&P report explaining their decision to downgrade the U.S. government’s credit rating? It was based in part on their belief that the political polarization in Washington prevented elected officials from addressing key economic issues in timely fashion. And yet these journalists seem intent on driving that point home by having Obama call Congress back into emergency session, only days after the near default, in the naïve (or perhaps self-interested!) belief that during an emergency session Congress would move more quickly this time to pass a series of not uncontroversial legislative proposals. Never mind that it would likely result in a reprise of the months-long debt default negotiations. At least it would demonstrate leadership!
Politico’s Glenn Thrush’s question near the end of the conference aptly summarized the tenor of the press queries:
“Q — you said he will be contributing to the process, talking about the super committee, but he won’t be leading it. He is the leader of the free world. Why isn’t he leading this process?
MR. CARNEY: I think that was a technical recognition of the fact that it is a congressional committee, Glenn. Look, this President, his leadership on these issues is quite established.”
Evidently Carney’s reminder that the Congress has some say when it comes to economic issues did not satisfy Milbank. In the conclusion to his WaPo piece, Milbank muses about Obama’s seemingly feckless leadership: “That is the enduring mystery of Obama’s presidency. He delivered his statement on the economy beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but that was as close as he came to forceful leadership. He looked grim and swallowed hard and frequently as he mixed fatalism (“markets will rise and fall”) with vague, patriotic exhortations (“this is the United States of America”).
‘There will always be economic factors that we can’t control,’ Obama said. Maybe. But it would be nice if the president gave it a try.”
Here’s the real mystery: where was Milbank and his White House press colleagues during the debt debate? They clearly weren’t in Washington, or they wouldn’t be urging the president, to paraphrase Milbank’s words, to give it the old college try. Instead, they would be explaining to their readers that when Carney defended his boss by, in Milbank’s words, uttering “something about the founders and the separation of powers” Carney was actually writing Milbank’s lead. But Milbank evidently views references to the Constitution as a possible explanation for Obama’s “failure to lead” as too esoteric for his readers. Far better to blame it on Obama’s lack of a “fire in the belly”. Shades of Drew Westen!
Where’s the “most powerful man in the world”? I suspect that he’s in the White House, talking to Lincoln’s portrait about how a White House press corps hungry for news seems determined to make an impossible job even harder.