The Problem With James Carville's Criticism of Obama

James Carville attends a NFL game at the Louisana Superdome on November 30, 2009 Scott Halleran / Getty Images

As the political wheel turns the inevitable has happened: political pundits are debating whether President Obama has responded to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with sufficient urgency. First Hardball host Chris Matthews criticized the president on The Tonight Show, saying, "When is he actually going to do something? And I worry—I know he doesn't want to take ownership of it." Then Democratic strategist James Carville blasted Obama on Anderson Cooper's show last week, and again this morning on Good Morning America. Obama's "political stupidity is unbelievable," Carville said.

At least Matthews was talking about the actual substance of the response. Carville's criticism of Obama is entirely political: that it looks bad for Obama not to have stood at the proverbial ground zero with a bullhorn. GMA host George Stephanopoulos asked former Bush administration staffer Matthew Dowd whether he agreed with Carville's analysis, and, remarkably enough, he did. Dowd acknowledged that there is no evidence in Obama's poll numbers that the public actually feels this way but warned that it may show up soon.

Why is an issue of lives lost and environmental degradation being reduced to a question of political calculation? Television news had a proud moment around Hurricane Katrina because it actually went and covered what was happening. Eventually, the fact that the Bush administration had mishandled the response affected Bush's poll numbers and that was duly noted, but Anderson Cooper wasn't standing in front the Superdome saying, "This looks really bad for President Bush and might hurt his poll numbers." Everything has political ramifications, but not everything needs to be reduced to an analysis of the political winners and losers.

Obama's response may indeed deserve criticism on its own merits. Why did it take a full month to establish the Flow Rate Technical Team to determine oil-flow rates from the spill? Why is the water toxicity not being tested? Carville's criticism that Obama would have made his response look better by physically appearing in the gulf would be a smart internal Democratic National Committee memo. But the news media should focus on what is actually happening, and let the public decide how to judge it, rather than prognosticating how the public will respond. The latter is cheaper and easier, but the former is what we call journalism.