Last month, Politico’s Michael Grunwald published what I suspect is going to be a first draft of history’s judgment of Barack Obama’s presidency. He writes that “a review of his record shows that the Obama era has produced much more sweeping change than most of his supporters or detractors realize.”
Grunwald runs a long list of the President’s achievements, including Obamacare, the automobile industry bailout, the stimulus bill that kept the economy from falling off of a cliff, an overhaul of the boondoggle that was the federal student loan program, rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, serious (at last!) steps to combat climate change paving the way for an international agreement that could actually make a difference, an energy revolution that has significantly reduced U.S. reliance on dirty coal and foreign oil while boosting production and use of renewables, the end of “don’t ask don’t tell,” the legalization of same-sex marriage, and much more.
He sums it up by borrowing Vice President’s unfortunate open-mike comment at the signing of the Affordable Care Act, writing, “When you add up all the legislation from his frenetic first two years, when Democrats controlled Congress, and all the methodical executive actions from the past five years, after Republicans blocked his legislative path, this has been a BFD of a presidency, a profound course correction engineered by relentless government activism.”
Over the years, CPR Member Scholars and staff have sometimes taken issue with the President, generally because we’ve thought his administration lacked a sense of urgency on specific health, safety and environmental regulations — some of which are now all but certain not to make it through the pipeline on his watch — or because they thought he settled for half or three-quarters of a loaf rather than take heat from regulated industries. But I’d submit that despite those failings, this Administration has done much more to advance health, safety and environmental concerns than any President since Lyndon Johnson.
I’m also interested in the second half of Grunwald’s thesis — that most Americans don’t know about many of those accomplishments. Two of his examples stand out. The first is the Administration’s relatively quiet revolution in energy efficiency, part of its climate action plan, achieved through regulation, not legislation. They’ve written new efficiency standards for 39 separate products, Grunwald explains, “from pool heaters to clothes dryers,” including refrigerators, industrial motors, fluorescent lighting, and more. Many had been held up by the Bush Administration, but Obama resolved to push them through. An additional 20 standards are in the pipeline. According to Grunwald, the effort is “on track to slash 3 billion tons of emissions by 2030; that’s the equivalent of taking every car off America’s roads for two years, or shutting down every power plant for a year and a half — a striking behind-the-scenes example of the Obama administration taking matters into its own hands.”
Another example: He notes that as part of the stimulus bill, Obama cut taxes by $800 for most American workers, but then passed up the opportunity to advertise the cut to taxpayers by having three-digit refund checks mailed to each recipient. Instead, they followed the advice of economists and adjusted withholding rates so that workers would have a few more dollars in every paycheck. That made sound economic sense because the idea was to get more money circulating through the economy. A big check at the end of the year was more likely to go into savings than a few extra bucks every two weeks were, defeating the purpose. So they made the right policy choice at the expense of accruing political capital.
So the failure to capitalize politically is, Grunwald writes, on the White House.
Not to be naïve, but I’m actually glad to know that the White House put economic recovery ahead of political gain, thanks very much. More the point, it strikes me that it’s just a little too easy for journalists to stop the conversation there. After all, it’s the media’s job to inform the public about what’s actually happening, not simply to reflect the public relations choices of the White House or congressional leadership. But media coverage of what goes on in Washington is so focused on who’s up and who’s down, that the policy gets lost. Part of that is because journalists are afraid or too pressed for time to go beyond quoting two sides of an argument, so they’ll let politicians get away with saying manifestly absurd things without cueing the reader. That’s why so many Republican politicians get away with promoting a fictional account of climate change. If the media called them out a little more, the way President Obama did with his "denying Sputnik" quip during the State of the Union, they might feel some shame.
More broadly, the new media landscape doesn’t always facilitate covering substance. It’s not structured very well to do it, and Grunwald’s publication is Exhibit A. Politico exists to write about politics, and not much else. Go to their home page on any given morning, and you’ll find links to 25 to 30 stories, almost all of which are focused on politics not policy. That’s their mission, and they do it well, and apparently, they do it profitably, which is saying something these days.
The overemphasis on politics at Politico, Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News—across the spectrum—makes it seem as if that’s what’s ultimately most important. It’s not. Politics is a means to an end, and the end is good governance — sound policy, born of honest assessment of actual facts, filtered through a participatory democratic process, and implemented conscientiously and professionally.
So it’s great that Grunwald is willing to credit the President for his many policy achievements. He’s set an example for how other journalists ought to rise above the scrum to give readers a better sense of the big picture. (Note that his piece has been shared more than 193,000 times.) Let’s hope his editors at Politico and their colleagues at other outlets see the value of such work, and that they don’t wait until the eighth year of an administration to make a habit of it.