Immediately after the mid-term “shellacking” of Barack Obama and his party, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker breathlessly and instantly analyzed the election under the headline – “In Republican Victories, Tide Turns, Starkly.” The President, Baker analyzed, “must find a way to recalibrate with nothing less than his presidency on the line.”
Wow. What a difference seven weeks makes.
A lead story at the Politico website carries the headline: “Obama Rebounding.” Reporter Jennifer Epstein expands a tiny uptick in Obama’s poll standings – his approval/disapproval now stands evenly split at 48-48 in the latest CNN survey – into the insight that more Americans support the President’s policies than any time since mid-2009.
Say what? What happened to the guy who couldn’t find his groove? What became of the fatally wounded re-election bid? In that November 3 Times piece, former House Republican leader Dick Armey, a voice of the Tea Party, flatly predicted that Obama has “already lost his re-election.”
What’s going on here is that politics sometimes resembles another game – baseball. Every day is a new game and, while every team looks unbeatable through a winning streak and impossible in a slump, seldom are the players ever as good or bad as they appear. The ups get exaggerated and so do the downs.
The other phenomenon in plain view is the absolute fascination of the national media with the “comeback narrative.” The so called “media elite” from the Times to Time, from Fox News to Politico can’t operate without a simple, concise narrative. Every storyline needs, well, a story and there is no better political story than “the comeback.” Need more proof? USA Today supplies it with a headline: “Obama Sets Up As Comeback Kid.”
Seven weeks is a lifetime in politics, particularly in a political environment as volatile as ours; an environment influenced heavily, it must be noted, by relentless and often misleading coverage of the latest poll numbers. Here’s a thought. Rather than sitting around the Beltway cracker barrel, how about some political reporters go out into the country and talk to voters? They just might learn something.
A few things are obvious, even if they don’t fit neatly into the political narrative of the moment. The President has had a good lame duck session, he did recalibrate his stand on extending the Bush tax cuts and, as yet, the country sees no serious challenger to him in 2012. Meanwhile, by some accounts, Obama is quietly remaking his White House staff for the run up to his re-election and positioning himself as a reasonable, mid-ground alternative to the current faces of the GOP – Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Also obvious, Obama is a good politician who displays the ability to grow in office. By the same token, he is not as good at the political game as his 2008 election made him look, but he is also not as bad as the recent mid-terms made him look.
For Obama, like all politicians, the highs are always lower than they seem and the lows are always higher.
In truth, as Michael Cooper astutely pointed out in the Times in the wake of the mid-terms, a good deal of political “analysis” is not just spin, it is mythology.
But, political time and myth will march on and the national media will soon need to invent new narratives. In a few weeks, Newt and Mitt, Sarah and Haley will be showing up in places like Manchester and Waterloo and we can read and contemplate the unfolding of the endless presidential campaign. It will, no doubt, be the most important election in our lifetimes. You heard it here first.
All this reminds me – and reminded Michael Cooper after the mid-terms – of the late Polish philosopher and political thinker, Leszek Kolakowski. Once a hard-headed Stalinist, Kolakowski came to see the Communism of his youth as a fraud and he eventually became a leading intellectual of the Solidarity movement in his native land. He won a MacArthur genius award and his work was celebrated by, among others, the Library of Congress.
Kolakowski promulgated what he called the “Law of Infinite Cornucopia,” which holds that for any doctrine one chooses to embrace there is never a shortage of arguments to support that view.
So, welcome to the remarkable Obama comeback or, if you prefer, wait for “proof” that it never happened.