-By Warner Todd Huston
Writing for Time Magazine, Michael Scherer has one of the most schizophrenic pieces of political analysis I’ve seen for quite a while. In his piece, Scherer can’t quite seem to figure out exactly whom he thinks is to blame for Obama’s failed message on the Ground Zero mosque. Is it Obama’s fault for poor messaging? Or is it the media’s fault for having the temerity to ask the president a question? Scherer whipsaws from one to the other, but a closer examination cannot help but put all blame squarely on the president.
Firstly, Scherer seems to congratulate the president on the timing “perfectly scripted from a communications perspective” of his original GZ mosque message. It was released on Friday evening, that “weekly news cycle’s black hole,” when many news organizations might either miss the thing, or not continue the story on Monday when the workweek begins anew.
This congratulations, though, is a hollow accolade. The fact is, as event Scherer points out, Obama tried his best to hide his position on the mosque by attempting to put the news out when he felt no one was looking. This attempt at misdirection is hardly something for which to congratulate the president. Scherer goes on to tell us that Saturday came and put a crimp in Obama’s “perfectly scripted” mosque stance because Obama made the mistake of replying to a reporter’s off-the-cuff question yelled to him as he walked to lunch with his family.
Obama’s reply seemed to be stepping back from his comments at the Muslim gathering. On Friday night Obama seemed to be in strong support of building the mosque at Ground Zero, yet by lunchtime on Saturday he was stepping back from the stronger view from the night before.
Oddly, though, instead of firmly pointing out that this was a failure by the president to stick to his message, Scherer seemed to blame the press for the kerfuffle.
“Now everyone is riled up. The story will stay in the political bloodstream for another day or three. And President Obama has another reason not to talk to his press corps on the record,” Scherer writes.
As a rule, Obama avoids much interaction with those who follow him on a day to day basis. He will have reporters and columnists over for the occasional off-the-record lunch, but the daily chit chat is kept to a minimum. In this way, he distinguishes himself from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, two more natural schmoozers. But Saturday’s gaffe represents the second time this year that an unscheduled chit chat with the press corps caused him big problems. In late April, he came to the back of Air Force One and said “there may not be appetite” for immigration reform, an admission dubbed by one reporter Obama’s “fatal flinch” that infuriated Senate leaders and Hispanic voters, and effectively ended any hope for the bill passing this year.
Scherer seems to pin this on the press’ annoying habit of actually quoting the president. How is Obama’s own failure a “reason” not to talk to the press corps?
Then Scherer whipsaws back to thinking that Obama’s avoidance of the press is a bad thing. “Obama’s hesitance for impromptu moments with reporters is bad for people like me,” Scherer writes. “And it may, in some ways, be bad for democracy, as voters are denied the opportunity to see their leader without a script.”
But, not to worry. As if to say “it’s OK, President Obama, other’s do it, too,” Scherer ends his piece by throwing Obama a bone by misdirecting this whole discussion to some pointless little video tapped interaction between John McCain and a reporter that occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign.
This last bit is interesting as, in that the video clip of McCain struggling to answer an out-of-left-field question during one of his own visits to the press corps, it neither shows McCain making a major gaffe, nor does it show him changing his position on a past vote. It merely shows McCain being stumped on how to answer a question on a topic he had neither considered nor studied. This McCain video that Scherer added as a palliative for Obama’s flip flopping and bad messaging is practically a non sequitur.
The whole article was a mass of conflicting viewpoints all leading to little clarity. Scherer goes from saying the president’s GZ mosque message was perfect, to saying the president then muffed his own message, to blaming the press for somehow forcing the president to answer a question, to Obama’s lack of face time with the press in unscripted encounters as being bad, only to end up trying to excuse Obama for it all because John McCain once had a tough time answering a question.
Talk about mixed messages.