Thursday, August 12, 2010

Three Or Four Rants At The Same Time, I Lost Count

As you on the left probably know, you hate White House press secretary Robert Gibbs right now, regarding his comments concerning the "professional left". Comments such as, "I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested." Or saying that some on the left "will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not a reality."

Gibbs has received pretty much the same reaction that I've seen when the exact same sentiment has been said by numerous people to those same critics in my own circles: it just made them angrier.

I should probably note my personal position: I give Obama about a B right now. He has, contrary to much liberal belief, come through on a whole hell of a lot of his agenda so far in the first two years. Going by Politifact, out of 505 campaign promises made, he's "kept" 120 of them, and managed a "compromise" on an additional 38, which adds up to 31.29% of what can only be described as a massive, massive agenda. That's pretty damn good for the first two years. The "broken" count sits at 20, but I'd place a couple of them on general naivete of just what he was going to be up against. (The five-days-of-public-comment thing, for example. He found out in a hell of a hurry that that wasn't going to work.)

Which is normal. 'Experience' was a big campaign issue concerning Obama, but there's really no way to adequately prepare for being President except to actually be President. No job in America carries that combination of power, resources, responsibility, overinflated perception of responsibility, application process, public scrutiny, required skill set, required knowledge base, subordinates gunning for your job, dedication of opposition, lack of privacy, enforced isolation from the public, and sheer utter stakes. Presidents age twice as fast as a normal person for a reason. No experience in America comes close except, maybe, winning the Powerball. You have a brand new $300 million. Now you have an endless line of people you've never seen outside your door claiming to be long-lost relatives in financial trouble, all of which will guilt-trip and savage you if you don't give them the money.

Anyway, he's done a lot, especially considering what he's been up against. He didn't get the greatest healthcare bill in the world, but look how many past Presidents have tried and failed to get anything at all. The economy isn't the greatest, but it's been a sizable pullback from the outright tailspin that was inherited. We know when we're getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan- not soon enough for a lot of people, but you know there's a DATE. S-CHIP. Lilly Ledbetter. Dodd-Frank. But he's got his problems. There have been key parts of the agenda on which he's seemingly pulled back. Don't Ask Don't Tell. Guantanamo Bay. (I don't place FULL blame on Gitmo on Obama, as he signed the executive order ordering its closure within a year under the assumption that someone would actually give him money with which to do it, or give him a place to move the detainees. He certainly didn't foresee Congress denying him funding by a vote of 90-6. But, in hindsight, he probably shouldn't have signed the order before he got the money, and at this point, he does appear to have stalled out on the remaining 176 detainees.) So there are points at which I've been a bit miffed.

Okay, a lot miffed.

His big shortcoming, though, is that he really really really sucks at managing expectations, or fighting for legislation, until the last possible moment. You'll see a bill with a whole bunch of stuff that would be really cool to have, above and beyond what Obama actually promised. Awesome!

Then all the extra stuff gets stripped out one by one, while Obama just kind of sits there and allows it to happen. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. Ow, ow, ow, approval rating death by a thousand cuts, until you get all the way down to right about the exact thing Obama actually promised. Give or take. THEN he hops in, and suddenly things start moving along. (Note the 81 'stalled' promises.) By the time a bill finally limps and staggers its way to Obama's desk, even though it's mostly what he campaigned on, it doesn't feel like a victory anymore. It feels like a disappointment.

See, during the campaign, everyone saw, and voted for, Campaign Obama, as he's been called. Fired up, ready to go, Yes We Can community-organizer Barack Obama. Love that guy. He's so awesome.

Then he got elected, and all of a sudden Campaign Obama turned into President Obama, mild-mannered policy wonk surrounded by people that can't campaign worth a rat's ass and are prone to unnecessary unforced errors. Mild-mannered policy wonk is fine, but when it's clear you're not getting any help from your wingmen in actually getting your wonky policies passed (particularly Harry Reid in this case; Pelosi's been a capable fighter), you've got to get out there and do it on your own. You see little flashes of Campaign Obama, once in a while, but only for the briefest little flashes, and it's frustrating to watch. You know he could be so much better, and that's the big problem. He's hitting 50 home runs on the year, but you feel it should be 60, or 70. He's getting 125 RBI's, but you feel it should be 140, 150.

The unnecessary unforced error is where we meet Gibbs. There are some calls to replace him as White House Press Secretary.

That solves the wrong problem.

That job eats people alive. I don't know why people still line up around the block to take it. You never actually break any news at the daily press briefing. It's kabuki theater. Day after day the old guard of the media ask you to react to stuff that's happened elsewhere. If it's been a bad news cycle, they just beat on you for 45 minutes, all you get to do is say whatever the President told you to say or direct the media guy to some other agency, and you do this day after day after mind-numbing day until you finally snap, say something stupid, and then it's time to get a new press secretary so the cycle can repeat itself anew. And nothing actually happens. The only news that ever gets broken is directly related to the press briefing itself. The whole thing is vestigial.

I think there's a better way.

If it were me, I scrap the daily briefing entirely. Now, that's clearly going to get the media up in arms, understandably, but in its place, I take the briefing room and convert it into a kind of press release clearinghouse. Make it into a sort of library, the shelves of which are filled with all of the newly-public information made available by the federal government. Declassified documents, reports, surveys, studies, whatever, across the scope of the government, has most recently been made public. Put it all in that room- maybe condense the larger pieces into digital form- and tell the press corps to go nuts. One-stop shopping for whatever they want to be writing about that day. If a Press Secretary position is retained, it's to be little more than a curator- 'you're looking for what? Right over there.'

Yes, you lose the personal interaction, but really, when you get right down to it, how much in Washington these days actually gets done on camera? How much is actually being done in front of you, and how much is kabuki theater? The votes on the floor are pretty much known before they call the roll; the debate on the floor is predetermined and as a result extremely disjointed. It's not 'debate' so much as 'a bunch of prewritten mini-speeches on the same topic'. In actual debates (e.g. Presidential debates), answers are heavily rehearsed based on what's most likely to be asked. The politicians on the news in the day-to-day grind have to keep their words straight lest they say something stupid. And they better be that way every waking hour of every single day, lest some guy with comparable job skills to a paparazzi catches them muttering something to themselves while eating lunch. We've hit the point where in order to properly function in Washington, you have to have the mindset, basically, of a reality gameshow contestant. Be outrageous in front of the camera so you get TV time, get your actual work done when you think nobody's watching, hope the enemy alliance doesn't bust you and vote you out, and assume no privacy doing anything ever. Sooner or later, expect to be filmed on the toilet.

At a certain point, you actually want to put them on camera less. You know, so they can do more with that agenda.

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