I think that the pundits and the public should face up to one fact. The mess that President Barack Obama inherited will not be fixed in one year, or two or possibly even during his entire term. That makes it exceedingly difficult to determine, in this time framework, especially through the screen of the constant criticism of him and his policies what the real nature of his presidential contribution will be.
The media works on a timeframe of instant results. While grudgingly admitting that the George Bush administration presided over the wars, the sorry state of the economy and the home foreclosure crisis, and passed it on to Obama, they nonetheless, constantly criticize Obama’s personal actions and proposals in his attempt to fix these problems. Those who come to his defense in the welter of attacks are rare, since it appears from surveying many media outlets that most of those who are allowed the privilege of participating in the public interpretation of events are opponents of this White House. The frequency of Republican and conservative Democratic voices invited to comment on every action of the White House has been overwhelming, something the Democratic party did not experience under George Bush.
So, what are we to make of the fact that Obama inherited the worst situation going into office of perhaps any president in American history and that his poll numbers are just below 50% at the end of one year in office? Are these good considering the problems, or do the pundits and the American people realistically expect that he would have resolved the problems they face in one year? Or is this merely a symbol of American discontent with the personal situation that that they impute to the president as the custodian of the problems? I think it is the latter.
Somewhere, reality must trump symbolism and it is my belief that this is not only the task of historians, but it is the responsibility of serious media as events occur.
Too often, unjustified criticisms of this Administration have been uttered on the talk shows, the internet and in other forums without opposition by hosts, commentators and other persons who influence public opinion. This means that the media has been influential in driving down Obama’s favorable ratings by doing things like trying to make him responsible for the high unemployment rate and the response by the “Tea Party” phenomenon as a legitimate sense of the American people, when it is little more than a carefully crafted and funded Right Wing mobilization.
Too often media commentators have not corrected or given balance to the criticisms such as: George Bush kept us safe during his tenure when no one knows whether that is true; or that Obama promised to put everything on C-SPAN; or that he waited too long to respond to the Detroit airline bomber; or that he hasn’t focused on job creation; and that the Stimulus Package has not worked at all.
If George Bush had been as criticized and interrogated as much as Obama, perhaps the edifice of problems that now challenge the very viability of America might have been stopped. In fact, in the context of the problems his administration faces, the personality and actions of Obama exist in a war of interpretation but I do not see them positioning their troops to fight it.
Besides the concrete accomplishments of any president, its legacy will often be determined by who wins the war over the interpretation of the actions of his administration at the time it is in office. Those interpretations will often exist for a long time because historians use media interpretations as well.
My sense of this was heightened by remarks by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post who recently wrote that given his low favorable numbers Obama has “failed” as president. How do you fail in one year and is that an accurate interpretation of how to read the polls?
Nevertheless, by stating that Obama has failed, Cohen has influenced the judgment of many people in that regard. The lack of reality that resides in such judgments is one of the reasons why some of us believe that the interpretations of Obama’s actions have much to do with race, at base a belief in the inferiority of black leadership (even if he doesn’t profess to be a black leader). Indeed, a new study by Stanford University researchers strongly correlates racial bias with negative attitudes toward Obama. That aside, I believe that the nature of the skewed interpretations of Obama’s administration have much more to do with the times, the severity of the crisis, the hegemonic power of the Right to influence opinion and the lack of a forceful set of voices to right the balance of opinion. Despite the criticisms, the reality is that the Obama administration has made a dent in the problems America faces. Someone must answer why has he not been given the credit he deserves?
Ron Walters is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and a Political Analysts. His latest book is, The Price of Racial Reconciliation (University of Michigan Press).
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