I skipped the Obama press conference Tuesday night (I was celebrating after my dissertation defense -- hooray!) but I'm horrified by a couple of the articles I saw on it yesterday.
First, the New York Times ran an especially stupid analysis by Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney that recycled the "wooden professor" trope that the media applied so frequently to Al Gore:
[I]t was Barack Obama the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign. Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, "as I said before" — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell....
The top-to-bottom stupidity of this paragraph is breathtaking. First, Baker and Nagourney make up a "familiar character" called "Barack Obama the lecturer" -- an almost explicit acknowledgment of the way the media likes to construct multiple personas for politicians and play them off against each other in made-up psychodramas. (It's reminiscent of Mark Leibovich's invention of Hillary Clinton "Version 08, Nurturing Warrior, Presidential Candidate Model.") Baker and Nagourney then proceed to criticize Obama based on subjective interpretations of his tone and demeanor -- namely, the idea that he was "unsmiling" and sounded like a "lecturer" or "professor" whose students are "restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell." And does anyone doubt that all the opposite criticisms would have been applied had Obama behaved differently? (For instance, when he made a joke during a 60 Minutes interview, Steve Kroft asked him if he was "punch-drunk.")
The worst part of the article, however, reinforces the media pattern of berating Obama for not seeming mad enough at A.I.G.:
At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered...
To a certain extent, Mr. Obama's demeanor could have been calculated — an effort, aides said, to lower the temperature after a supercharged week and nudge the country toward what Mr. Obama considers the more pressing issues of fixing the banking system and reviving the economy. Even after excoriating the A.I.G. executives, he cautioned that "the rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit."
The only time he seemed irritated came when he was asked why the attorney general of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, seemed to have more success getting A.I.G. executives to return some bonuses than his own administration. Pressed on why he did not express outrage immediately upon learning of the bonuses, Mr. Obama said sharply, "Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak"...
What would satisfy these reporters? Should Obama stomp around and pound the podium? Hold his breath until he turns blue? It's not clear what emoting on command would accomplish, but faulting Obama for failing to do so is an easy kind of theater criticism that allows journalists to use a critical voice without being subject to accusations of bias.
The worst article, however, came from John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin at Politico, who take journalistic mind-reading to a new level with an article that offered a series of "translations" of "what [Obama] meant" in making various statements during the press conference:
What he said: "Now, we never expected, when we printed out our budget, that [Congress] would simply Xerox it and vote on it….The bottom line is—is that I want to see health care, energy, education and serious efforts to reduce our budget deficit."
What he meant: Chill out. I'm just not going to get all worked up about the fact that Kent Conrad and some other moderate Democrats are upset about the cost of my plans. If they want to tinker, go ahead. But you watch—I'll get nearly everything I want...
What he said: "At the end of the day, the best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is not with a budget that continues the very same policies that have led us to narrow prosperity and massive debt. It's with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow-and-spend to one where we save and invest."
What he meant: There is no way I am going to lose the language wars in a budget battle. My budget may borrow more and spend more than any in history. But I am going to frame this plan with appeals that emphasize sobriety and responsibility. That may be a bit brazen, but no more so than Republicans who rubber-stamped huge deficits under Bush...
What he said: "A budget is a snapshot of what we can get done right now, understanding that eight, 10 years from now we will have a whole series of new budgets."
What he meant: Give me a break. As Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead...
What he said: "You know, there was a lot of outrage and finger-pointing last week, and much of it is understandable….At the same time, the rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."
What he meant: Put the pitchforks down, folks. AIG outrage is last week's story. This week's story is my plan to use generous federal subsidies to convince investors to clean up the banks by buying their toxic assets. The plan won't fly if I am seen as anti-capitalist.
He returned to the issue when CNN's Ed Henry pressed him on why if he was so mad about AIG bonuses, he waited days to express his outrage, and why he's letting New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo hog the spotlight on the issue.
"It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak," Obama said.
Translation: Put a sock in it, Ed...
What he said: "It's not going to cripple them. They'll still be well-to-do. And, you know, ultimately, if we're going to tackle the serious problems that we've got, then, in some cases, those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more."
What he meant: Suck it up, rich folks, and welcome to your post-Bush tax code.
What he said: "With respect to the American people, I think folks are sacrificing left and right. I mean, you've got a lot of parents who are cutting back on everything to make sure that their kids can still go to college. You've got workers who are deciding to cut an entire day -- an entire day's worth of pay so that their fellow co-workers aren't laid off."
What he meant: I know that Washington reporters and think-tank experts think all politicians are weak and irresponsible unless they are cutting entitlements or asking the middle-class to suffer. Well, I know a political trap when I see one.
What he said: "How effective these negotiations may be, I think we're going to have to wait and see. But, you know, we were here for Saint Patrick's Day, and you'll recall that we had what had been previously sworn enemies celebrating here in this very room; you know, leaders from the two sides in Northern Ireland that, you know, a couple of decades ago or even a decade ago people would have said could never achieve peace."
What he meant: Please refer all non-emergency foreign policy questions to Secretary of State Clinton – and in the meantime please accept this heartwarming story as down payment on an Israel policy.
What he said: "Kevin Baron, Stars and Stripes. Is Kevin here? There you go."
What he meant: You have to admit, I am clever. I get to call on a reporter who is not from one of the big news organizations, whose subject is going to be easy to predict, and whose question I can answer by pointing out that I want to improve health care for veterans.
From a broader perspective, this is an especially disturbing innovation for novelistic political journalism. Rather than just pretending to know the motives and beliefs of public figures, the Harris/Martin "translation" format allows reporters to quote directly from politicians' minds. In this format, journalists can ascribe whatever intent or motive to public figures that they want without ever being proven wrong. No wonder people think Politico is such an innovative publication!