Dueling narratives about Obama

Most conservatives regard President Obama as, above all else, a radical who seeks fundamentally to transform the United States on all fronts. But the mainstream media has never viewed him this way. What conservatives see as radically transformative, the mainstream media tends to consider the next logical step.

For example, the mainstream media generally views Obamacare as a middle ground between doing nothing (or little) to provide coverage to the uninsured and implementing traditional left-wing solutions like single-payer, which many MSM members would like to see. And it generally views Obama’s foreign policy not as a systematic effort to decrease American influence but as a reasonable reaction to President Bush’s overreach.

What, then, has been the MSM’s Obama narrative. The examples provided above point us to it. Realizing early on that Obama could not plausibly be portrayed as the messianic figure of the MSM’s dreams, he became a cerebral pragmatist searching for the middle ground in the face of fierce and unreasonable opposition from “the far right.”

But then came the Obamacare rollout followed by the VA scandal. These scandals have given rise to a new MSM narrative, one that is likely to carry the day at least until historians write the “second draft” of the Obama administration’s history.

The new narrative — the first rough draft — is expressed in this column by Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, an MSM mainstay. The title says it all: ” VA scandal fits an established Obama narrative: skilled politician, lousy manager.”

McManus writes:

We don’t normally expect our presidents to pay close attention to how long veterans are being asked to wait for care in the vast medical system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs..

But we do expect presidents to appoint Cabinet officers and other aides who can run the federal government well — well enough, at least, to prevent full-blown scandals from erupting.

That’s what the VA’s long-running scheduling problems have turned into after reports that veterans died while waiting for medical care — and bureaucrats apparently manipulated records to make their performance look good when it wasn’t.

McManus finds the VA scandal “especially dangerous for President Obama because it fits into an established narrative about his presidency: that he’s “a skilled politician and speechmaker but a lousy manager.”:

The biggest problems Obama has faced in the White House — aside from unrelenting opposition from Republicans in Congress — have come not from making policy but from trying to implement it. The calamitous launch of his healthcare plan last fall is the biggest and most painful example, but it’s only one of several.

The 2009 economic stimulus plan’s “shovel-ready” projects that took months to start, the confused response to the 2010 BP oil spill, the flap over IRS scrutiny of conservative organizations, even the State Department failures that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi in 2012 — all were mainly lapses in management, not policy.

Here, the dueling narratives become manifest. McManus wants to characterize key Obama scandals as issues of competence, not ideology (as Michael Dukakis would say). Conservatives, while certainly not denying Obama’s incompetence, want to focus on Obama’s ideology — government overreach, an authoritarian view towards political opponents, and a seriously flawed policy in the Arab world.

But McManus’ MSM narrative is plenty damning. Indeed, it can be viewed as more damning than the conservative narrative. Many conservatives see Obama as a deadly serious figure making a strong bid to drive the country in a new direction. Those of us who are willing to “give the devil his due” acknowledge that his presidency may, on balance, prove a successful one, judged in terms of its objectives.

The MSM narrative doesn’t acknowledge the objectives and thus cannot see Obama as a success in these terms. Now that events have boxed it in, the MSM is left with the view (to paraphrase McManus only slightly) that Obama is an excellent politician and a lousy president.


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