x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obama had a bad week but he will survive the press war

Despite the ensuing hysteria in Washington's partisan media coverage of president Obama's performance this week, the White House will survive it.

Headlines scream: "Obama struggles", "White House dysfunction", or, worse still, "Has Obama Lost Washington?" Based on last week's press reports, one gets the sense that the Obama administration is unravelling.

There is no doubt that last week was a bad one for the US president, Barack Obama. But it's not as disastrous as his critics would have it.

To understand the dynamic behind this bad press, two metaphors are helpful. The first comes from former Senator Eugene McCarthy, who compared Washington's political press to crows on a high wire. "When one lands," he said, "they all land. And when one takes off, they all take off."

It is an apt description of the frenzies that can occur in our political world when reporters and politicos, like sharks, smell blood in the water (the other metaphor) and move in to devour their wounded prey.

In Washington, stories grow and become larger than themselves, and in the ensuing hysteria, all sense of proportion can be lost. Such has been the case with the congressional hearings into the way the White House handled the deaths of four US officials in Benghazi, Libya.

According to a recent poll, 41 per cent of Republicans say that Benghazi is the "biggest scandal in US history". And former vice president Dick Cheney claimed that Benghazi is "one of the worst incidents, frankly, that I can recall".

That there is less to this entire affair than meets the eye doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that the Benghazi "scandal" pales in comparison to the lies that dragged the US into the Iraq war. What matters to the press is the perception that this is a "big story" revealing "dark truths".

Add to this recent admissions about the federal tax collecting agency - the Internal Revenue Service - targeting the Tea Party and "patriot" groups for special scrutiny, and the Department of Justice using its Bush-era antiterrorism powers to investigate reporters who received leaked information about a CIA operation in Yemen.

It might help to put the events of the past week into some perspective, but I know it would not do any good. There is blood in the water and in deeply partisan Washington, the struggle for advantage and power always trumps reality.

If Congress were truly concerned about "lies" told by government officials, the failure of an administration to protect American lives and the need for government officials to be transparent, the place for it to begin would be with the Iraq war or with the Bush administration's systematic use of torture, rendition and other practices that violated American and international laws.

The Obama administration's release of inter-agency communications establishes nothing more than the banal practice of language vetting that, while annoying at times, has become standard practice.

In fact, this is nothing more than a continuation of the five-year-long effort to weaken the president to gain advantage over Democrats, and, in this instance, to wage a pre-emptive strike against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's presidential aspirations, should she have any.

As for the IRS and DOJ stories, they are problems, but problems that do not implicate the president. If anything they have given the president the opportunity to demonstrate his determination to respond. He immediately condemned both as abuses of power and acted to remove the head of the IRS.

All this, the pundits say, could not have come at a worse time for Mr Obama. As conventional wisdom has it, the Obama administration has a limited window of opportunity to push through its second term agenda: immigration reform, responsible gun control measures, a new budget that continues to grow the economy while reining in deficits, and facing down foreign policy challenges, especially those raging across the Middle East.

In this view, by next year the country will be in the throes of congressional elections and Democrats running in close contests wanting to dissociate themselves from a weakened White House. Republicans hope that Democrats will be less inclined to support the president's agenda if it doesn't fit their re-election calculations. Following these November 2014 contests, Mr Obama will truly become a lame duck. This is what has Republicans gleefully putting forth, and the press amplifying, the notion that the president is finished.

Two observations are in order. The first is that while Mr Obama has had a bad week, it pales in comparison to his predecessors' second-term woes. Bill Clinton had to deal with a trumped-up impeachment process and George W Bush faced national scorn for his disastrous handing of Hurricane Katrina and the unravelling of his Iraq war. These were, by any measure, far more serious challenges. Mr Clinton not only survived impeachment, but was buoyed by a robust economy. And Mr Bush, with his smoke and mirrors "surge" operation in Iraq, was able to rebound until the 2008 economic crisis.

Mr Obama should regain control of the story being told in the media. The still-recovering economy will help but it won't be enough to turn the tide. Nor can he count on Congress to support him with passage of key elements of his agenda. With or without "scandal," partisanship will continue to win out.

The president will need to reestablish control by executive decisions in areas of domestic or foreign policy, where he can demonstrate leadership by acting decisively. Should he succeed, the shenanigans in Congress will be reduced to a sideshow. And the American press will follow the story he is creating.

All in all, it may have been a bad week, but it is one the White House can survive.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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