Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, was 50 minutes late for his briefing, apparently a record for tardiness, but few reporters in the White House press room bothered to feign outrage; they didn't seem all that eager to ask him questions anyway. When his boss flew to Missouri to give another of his "high octane" (The New York Times), "impassioned" (The Washington Post) health-care speeches, no cable channel covered the event. If you are president, the only thing worse than criticism is not being covered. And the truth is, we in the press are bored with Barack.
The "mainstream media" are losing patience with, and even interest in, their erstwhile hero. President Barack Obama never had a chance with the Ailes-Murdoch crowd, of course, and it didn't take the president long to offend the fierce left wing of the blogosphere. But now, finally, the MSM, which views itself as ideologically neutral, has found ideologically neutral reasons to lose patience with him: that he may be ineffectual; that he doesn't know how to play the game; that he can't get anything done. Exhibit A: the health-care bill. The Times's Frank Rich, the astute dean of the commentariat, wrote recently that Obama has failed to "communicate a compelling narrative" in office and, as a result, "could be toast if he doesn't make good on a year's worth of false starts."
And yet this collective falling out of love is great news for Obama. Calling it quits with the MSM is just what he needs. A breakup might even save his presidency.
For one thing, almost no one likes or trusts the media. The latest Gallup survey of respected institutions puts us down with the worst of the riffraff: banks, labor unions, HMOs, and Congress. If we attack you, it only proves you must have some redeeming qualities. That jujitsu even worked in an odd and unexpected way for Bill Clinton. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky crisis in 1998, polls showed voters were not only appalled by Clinton's behavior, they were appalled by the media's obsession with it.
Obama needs to stop caring what we all write and say, a process he can start by abandoning the comfortable but incapacitating illusion that reporters are his friends. He can't and shouldn't rely on us to translate for him. We'll get it wrong. And we're the foulest of fair-weather friends. We read the polls, too, and when they plummet, we run. Yet until now, Obama has justifiably regarded the MSM as part of his base, as one of his constituencies. In fact, he thinks of himself as one of us: a member of the chattering class; a bestselling author; op-ed page habitué; student of the craft of writing, reporting, and analyzing. I asked the White House for the president's daily reading material. Here is the list I got back: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, NEWSWEEK (a man of taste, this president), Time, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, "blogs," Foreign Affairs, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN.com. "Bottom line is that he reads a ton," I was told. Sure, we need the readers, but maybe that's a few pounds too many.
The president's problem is not that he is "professorial." It's worse: He's journalistic. His conceptual and even operational home base doesn't seem to be the South Side of Chicago; it's the op-ed page of the Times, where he's spent lots of time wooing the likes of conservative columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat. But grass-roots conservatives do not trust those guys (how could they? They write for the Times). And most voters don't read those pages in any case. Certainly most voters don't care as much about the "why" as they do the clear, plain-spoken "what" and "how." They want know, say, what the federal government is going to do about the health-care mess, and how we're supposed to cover 30 million more people and save money at the same time.
The Washington press corps, meanwhile, is concerned with other things. There is a predictable, metronomic pace to the media coverage of any presidency, and the sooner Obama embraces the Zen of dealing with it, the better off he'll be. We are at the staff-feud phase now (Is Rahm doomed? Has Axelrod overplayed his hand?), which will be followed by house-cleaning, mid-term clock--cleaning, soul-searching, spouse--consulting (Michelle will sparkle in the role), and, if all goes well, revival meeting.
To his credit, Obama is beginning to get it. The speech he gave in Missouri was the best explanation he has yet given on his health-care-reform plan. Reporters weren't paying much attention, but, if Obama is lucky, at least some voters—a.k.a. his real -constituents—were.