A Column about Nothing

May 27, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Obama 2008 Presidential Campaign

By Marie Burns:

I wonder how Barack Obama would do if he ran for president as himself. … How he would do if he ran for re-election on all the things he’s accomplished but rarely speaks about.
– Tom Friedman, New York Times op-ed column, May 27, 2012

How rare is a day in May?

Here was Obama on May 24, making brief remarks about energy policy in Newton, Iowa:

I’ve been pushing Congress to help us get [to a stronger economy] by passing a few common-sense policies that would strengthen the economy and put more folks to work right now…. Two weeks ago I was in Reno, Nevada, with a family — they got a chance to refinance because of some steps that we had already taken administratively, and it’s making a huge difference in their lives…. So we put together the Post-9/11 GI Bill so they’re able to go back and get some training and skills. We mobilized the private sector to hire more veterans and give them the private sector incentives to hire more veterans…. Shortly after I took office, I came to Newton … and we unveiled an all-of-the-above energy strategy for America. We said let’s produce more oil and gas, but let’s also produce more biofuels; let’s produce more fuel-efficient cars; let’s produce more solar and wind powerand other sources of clean, renewable energy…. And since then, our dependence on foreign oil has gone down every single year that I’ve been in office – every single year. America is now producing more domestic oil than any time in the last eight years. But we’re also producing more natural gas, and we’re producing more biofuels than any time in our history…. We’re laying the foundation for some of our nation’s first offshore wind farms. And since I became President, America has nearly doubled the use of renewable energy, like solar power and wind power – we’ve nearly doubled it…. And the best thing is, in the process, we’re also putting thousands of Americans back to work…. The wind industry…, thanks in large part to some very important tax credits, has now taken off…. Today, more and more of these [wind turbine] parts are being made here in America.

These remarks were hardly “rare.” That same day, here was Obama speaking at a campaign rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds:

So when some said we should just let Detroit go bankrupt, we put our money on American workers and the ingenuity of American companies. And today, plants are adding new workers and new shifts, and the American auto industry is firing on all cylinders. Our manufacturers started investing in America again — first time we consistently added manufacturing jobs since the 1990s…. Federal spending since I took office has risen at the slowest pace of any President in almost 60 years.… After inheriting a $1 trillion deficit, I signed $2 trillion of spending cuts into law…. We don’t need to re-fight the battle we just had over Wall Street reform. That was the right thing to do….We don’t need to re-fight the battle we just had over health care reform – having 2.5 million young people stay on their parent’s health insurance – that was the right thing to do. Cutting prescription drug costs for seniors – right thing to do. We’re not going to go back to the days when insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policies, or deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men. We’re not going back to that. We don’t need another political fight about ending a woman’s right to choose, or getting rid of Planned Parenthood or taking away affordable birth control…. We’re not going back to the days when you could be kicked out of the military just because of who you are and who you love. We’re moving forward as a country, where everybody is treated with dignity and respect.

Later the same day President Obama made similar remarks in Redwood City, California.

Still later that same day President Obama said this at a private fundraiser:

We’ve gone through three and a half of the toughest years in our lifetimes. It wasn’t just the 800,000 jobs a month that we were losing. We had lost 3 million jobs before I was even sworn into office. We had lost 8 million before our economic policies had a chance to take effect…. The good news, though, is that we’re beginning to steer that ship in the right direction. We’ve set a path and a target and a direction where this is again a country where everybody gets a fair shot…. A lot of that has to do with making sure that every kid in this country is getting a good education. And I could not be prouder of the work that we’ve done on education reform…. We’re making progress when it comes to science and innovation, and all the investments that we’ve been making to try to make sure that we retain the edge that made us into an economic superpower. We’ve started to rebuild our infrastructure — not just the infrastructure of the past, not just roads and bridges, but also smart grids and high-speed rail…. We’re starting to make progress when it comes to advanced manufacturing, bringing jobs back here to the United States of America. And our exports have surged. We’re opening up markets all across the world….

Health care continues to be an extraordinary challenge, but we’re starting to see the impact of the health care bill. And young people, 2.5 million young people who are able to stay on their parent’s plan because of the health care bill, millions of seniors who are seeing reductions in the cost of their prescription drugs. And ultimately, 30 million people who right now are showing up at the emergency room are going to have the chance for affordable, decent health care coverage. And in the process, we’re rationalizing the system, so that we start driving down costs. We’ve doubled fuel-efficiency standards on cars. We have doubled the amount of clean energy that we’re producing…. we actually have seen our imports of foreign oil drop down under 50 percent, the lowest that it’s been in 15 years…. We ended the war in Iraq. We’re in the process of ending the war in Afghanistan. And in the process we’re also restoring respect for this country all around the world….

So the strides that we’ve made over the last three and a half years have been extraordinary….

President Obama gives numerous speeches ever week. In almost every one of these speeches, he mentions some of “the things he’s accomplished.” It is true that some of his speeches are issue-specific – like the one he made in Newton, Iowa – so he may limit his remarks to touting measures or proposals that relate to the issue at hand. In a few cases, breast-beating is inappropriate, of course. It is unlikely, for instance, that during his Memorial Day remarks the President will be boasting about his decision to rescue the auto industry. Not every speech is a campaign speech.

I know Friedman is a world traveler and doesn’t have time to tune in to every Obama speech. But I also know that even when he is traveling, Friedman has access to the Internet because he posts his stories from Jakarta and Amman or wherever. Transcripts of Obama’s speeches are available online. All Friedman had to do was go to the White House site. But he didn’t. Instead, he made up something – something untrue and something on which he bases his entire column. In other words, Friedman has written a column about nothing.

On he goes, complaining that

Barack Obama is a great orator, but he is the worst president I’ve ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue…. Obama – the champion of private insurance for all – has allowed himself to be painted as a health care socialist.

Friedman doesn’t think Americans know that Obama “got all the top U.S. automakers to agree to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets” – ‘the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history.’” Friedman also claims that Obama “allowed” “this duality to take hold: ‘The Bush tax cuts’ versus the ‘Obama bailout’? It should have been ‘the Bush deficit explosion’ and the ‘Obama rescue.’ Friedman’s “correction” is of course inaccurate. The “Obama rescue” began under President Bush, who pushed through a bill allowing for $700 billion to bail out the banks, several billion of which he diverted to the auto industry.

“You can’t just blame Fox News,” Friedman writes. “Obama has the bully pulpit.” That’s right, Tom, he does. And if you are too lazy to even read what he says, he might as well be talking into a wind turbine – you know, one of those clean-energy machines made possible by the stimulus expenditures Obama never mentions. If Friedman – a so-called journalist – has no idea what Obama has been saying, how can ordinary Americans who are not in the news business be expected to keep up?

Friedman is not through chastising President Obama: “Obama is running even with Mitt Romney not simply because of what he didn’t say, but also because of what he didn’t do.” Friedman goes on to note that Obama’s former Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag is now calling for more stimulus. What Friedman doesn’t tell you is that Orszag reputedly wore a wet blanket throughout his tenure as OMB director, constantly pushing the need for deficit reduction. (Orszag disagrees with this characterization.) Friedman also fails to mention that he himself – Thomas Friedman – has been among the most influential deficit hawks, devoting countless columns (because I’m unwilling to count them) to urging the President to “go big” and embrace the Simpson-Bowles Catfood Commission deficit reduction plan, or something even more draconian.

Oh, wait. He does it again in today’s column: “In short, we needed more stimulus paired with some version of the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan…. Together they would launch the U.S. economy.” Friedman does acknowledge “in fairness,” that Obama “tried a version of this with his ‘grand bargain’ talks with the House speaker, John Boehner.” But again Friedman blames Obama for the failure of that little pas de deux, arguing that Obama should have “gone to the country” to insist the Congress pass the Tom Friedman Deficit-Reduction/Stimulus Plan. Friedman seems totally oblivious to the flailings of the so-called Congressional Super Committee, whose sole task it was to devise a deficit-reduction package. Friedman also seems to have no idea that the occasion for the Obama-Boehner “grand bargain” negotiations was the House Republicans’ threat to default on the nation’s debt obligations. That is, President Obama did not have much of a hand to play. He could not afford to call Boehner’s bluff because it was not a bluff – Boehner’s Tea Party caucus really did plan to default. On top of that, a number of the concessions Obama reportedly was willing to make – like raising the eligibility age for Medicare – were downright stupid; they would ultimately raise – not lower – costs.

Finally, Friedman claims that instead of following the Friedman Plan, “Obama retreated to his left base, offered a stimulus without [the] Simpson-Bowles [deficit-reduction plan] and started talking about ‘fairness.’” That’s funny, because following the debt ceiling/“grand bargain” debacle, the media widely reported stories with headlines like “Obama outlines deficit-reduction plan” (September 19, 2011). Obama is still at it. As Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo wrote this past Friday,

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and their surrogates on Capitol Hill, are locked in a fight over which candidate and which party will more quickly and effectively reduce the deficit – the opposite of what economists say we need…. Obama’s budget … calls for reducing deficits over the next 10 years with a mix of higher taxes and spending cuts – a less radical mix of policies, but a real call for budget consolidation.

In short, nearly everything Friedman writes is untrue. Friedman says “you can’t just blame Fox News.” I don’t. I also blame mainstream media writers like Tom Friedman who spout disinformation every time they sit down at their computers. I blame major media outlets for not adequately fact-checking and challenging political candidates’ remarks; specifically for letting campaign talking points masquerade as facts. One result: despite Mitt Romney’s serial mendacity, major media outlets gave Mitt Romney “more positive coverage than President Obama” between January 2 and April 15, 2012. I blame major media outlets for publishing nonsense columns like Friedman’s repeated writings calling for a third-party presidential candidate, who would “bring the parties together,” when such a proposal is preposterous.

I blame major media for the very language they use. Friedman complains that Obama “has allowed” terms like “the Bush tax cuts” and the “Obama bailout” to proliferate in the media, as if the media have no choice but to translate policies and programs into Republicanese. Or maybe Friedman is suggesting we just trash the First Amendment. Let the president decide what language the press can use. If so, the president should take away Tom Friedman’s keyboard. Friedman repeatedly uses the word “entitlements” to describe social safety net programs because “entitlement” has a negative connotation. Tom the Deficit Hawk wants to “reform” or “trim” “entitlements,” a palatable way of characterizing, “slash safety net programs.” And Friedman most famously popularized the word “globalization” when “global corporatization” would be a more accurate term.

Some things are the President’s fault. But Friedman’s implicit suggestion that a political leader should “control the message” is not just idiotic. It is Orwellian. At least that’s something.

Marie Burns blogs at


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