As an opinion journalist, I am paid to have opinions, pronto. Sometimes those opinions are long-held. Other times, I have to react quickly based on facts and beliefs, that, in the aggregate, lead me to a conclusion. One conclusion I have really avoided coming to is a one-size-fits-all opinion about President Barack Obama.
On one hand (editorial people love this phrase), I like President Obama. Or, rather, I like the idea of President Obama. He’s bright, well-educated, a great writer, a thinker, and an inspirational figure for millions of disenfranchised Americans. First Lady Michelle Obama is wonderful, and his daughters are terrific. I think he can act decisively and has tried to think creatively about a lot of national problems. He’s tried to engage the GOP in Congress, and a lot of them really don’t seem terribly interested in engagement. I didn’t say he was right about everything, but he is all those things that I described.
On the other hand (the other phrase editorial people like), he can give the impression, like it or not, that he is truly aloof, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks or says. He shows a brittle tenor in his responses to events that has grown worse since he’s been in office. He’s not at all amusing, really, not in the JFK or Ronald Reagan manner. Like President Bill Clinton, I am hard-pressed to think of a quip he made that wasn’t scripted for the White House Correspondents Dinner. That bothers me.
Having said that, there have been two incidents in the past month or so that have led me to a re-evaluation of what he’s about.
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The first was his lack of what I considered to be a convincing explanation of just why, precisely, he said “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” I listened to an answer he gave a few weeks ago in which he accepted responsibility, that he screwed up, which was massively self-evident. What he didn’t seem to convey is why he said it. That bothered me. I don’t think Obama is a socialist given this health plan; he’s just gone along with a plan previously proposed by Republicans. A socialist president would have gone to a single-payer system. Period.
The second is what I consider to be not just an Obama problem, but a nationally systemic problem within the federal government, which is lack of press and electronic media access. This problem has been growing with each passing presidency since World War II, and the secrecy fetish has made me more skeptical of everything Obama does and says. This has been manifested by the increasing restrictions that the White House has placed not only on print and broadcast journalists, but even on photographers, and the increasing reliance on White House-manufactured pictures.
Now, I know presidents have a right to maintain some distance. They need to be able to make decisions where they aren’t being hounded constantly, but I am really hard-pressed to understand why they would restrict still photographers. This is not just an information decision, it’s an aesthetics decision. After all, just what do White House press photographers actually publish? Candid and artistic shots of the president and his staff doing things. The press gets to edit those images in their own creative judgment, not someone in the White House.
The press is independent, for better or worse. It’s not only protected in the constitution as an amendment, it’s the First Amendment. Not the Third. Or the Ninth. And when government entities like the White House, occupied transitorially by elected officials, starts encroaching on the press to make independent judgments and create independently-produced content, it’s a threat to everyone.
I suspect that President Obama, who gave great lip-service in 2008 to creating a new and open America inclusive to all, meant what he said during that historic campaign. Part of that promise is letting people in the system, and the main way you let them in the system is to let the press report on what the government is doing.
Due to a shrinking news media, there are fewer and fewer reporters covering the White House. That means some stories either aren’t being told, or they are being manipulated beyond what any reporter can discover on his own. Images are important, too, and the restrictions placed on photographers is yet another example of why I am beginning to become disillusioned with this president.
Thirteen years ago, President Obama was just a flunky Illinois state senator who couldn’t even get admitted to the floor of the 2000 Democratic convention because he couldn’t get a pass. Seriously. And he was upset about it. Imagine.
Maybe he might recall how that moment felt once again, because millions of Americans are being denied the only floor pass to government they have:
A free press.