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Morning Joe’s Week-long Whine Over Obama ‘Optics’ | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Morning Joe’s Week-long Whine Over Obama ‘Optics’


A 2009 photo of Joe Scarborough on the set of his "Morning Joe," show in New York. (AP Photo/MSNBC, Virginia Sherwood)

It started a while ago, but it may have reached an absurd peak this week: Joe Scarborough, Chuck Todd and the MSNBC morning crew’s whining about Obama’s ostensible tin ear and awful “optics.”

What so unnerved them this time was that Obama gave a speech on the economy in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shootings in Washington. That bad timing is proof, said Joe, that the president is facing a “lame-duck meltdown.”

In the Monday speech, long planned for the fifth anniversary of the financial collapse, Obama attacked the GOP for risking “economic chaos,” with its threats to shut down the government if Obamacare isn’t defunded (which the House just voted for today) and to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Obama addressed the massacre, and he delayed the speech by an hour but no longer because, as he later told Telemundo, “Congress has a lot of work to do right now.”

That set off nearly three days of Morning Joe tsk-tsking, as if they were a swarm of media cicadas. Mika made sad faces, Joe went into his customary high dudgeon, and the other boys, including Mike Barnacle, John Heilemann and liberal Donny Deutsch, joined the concerned circle of consensus.

But it was frequent MJ guest and former George W. Bush aide Nicole Wallace who pointed out the faux pas’s true dimensions. It was, she said, as devastating a moment as when her old boss, asked what was the biggest mistake he made after 9/11, said he couldn’t think of one. “This for me is that moment for Obama,” Wallace said, “where he is publicly showing us he’s incapable of adapting and adjusting to events. It’s incredibly revealing and incredibly damaging to the White House.”

Wallace, a moderate Republican, may sincerely believe this, if only to remind herself that good people can make bad, career-crushing decisions. She’s no stranger to that problem, having worked as Sarah Palin’s adviser in the 2008 campaign—until she realized the Alaskan governor wasn’t fit to be a vice-president. (Wallace later revealed that she didn’t vote that year.)

But no such excuse exists for the rest of the Morning Joe gang or for Chuck Todd. Todd complained about Obama’s misstep all day Tuesday. He led The Daily Rundown the next day by asking, “Where’s the outrage?”—outrage not only that Congress, just blocks from the Navy Yards shooting, wasn’t stirred to debate gun control but outrage that the president didn’t change his plans.

Maybe Obama should have rescheduled. Waiting a day wouldn’t have hurt; and, sure, he should have anticipated the media carping. But the carping itself—not just from MSNBC, of course, but from the usual suspects like Maureen Dowd and Fox News—was way out of proportion. Especially given the outrage that the same media choose not to feel every day.

Just this morning, for instance, Morning Joe mentioned yesterday’s mass shooting on the South Side of Chicago. But that didn’t change the show’s plans, which included a deep discussion on the wonders of the latest iPhone.

Where’s the outrage?! (Well, Joe did briefly rage about the Chicago violence, saying that law-abiding citizens there were asking, “Do you know if there’s a version of stop-and-frisk you can import from New York to our neighborhood?”)

And Joe and company surely spent more time this week bewailing the timing of Obama’s speech than they spent covering another still-unfolding and deadly emergency, the Colorado floods. This selective finger-wagging can go on and on—why didn’t they obsess over the House’s vote to cut food stamps by $40 billion? Or the ongoing misery by sequester? Or anything that’s more important than whatever the media take on with self-intoxicating urgency? (Remember the IRS kerfuffle, the “worst scandal since Watergate,” as Peggy Noonan wrote?)

Of course, speech-timing-gate is just part of the larger Beltway consensus that Obama is a failure as a salesman, on issues from healthcare to Syria to Larry Summers.

Obama, Politico complained, was “incoherent,” moving from calling for intervention in Syria to asking for a congressional vote “to diplomacy [with] Putin, who had spent the summer humiliating him in the Edward Snowden case.”

By giving up on Summers’s nomination to head the Fed, Politico said, “Obama also allowed a vacuum to grow in which liberals in his own party felt no compunction about publicly registering their opposition, whatever their president’s preferences.”

So Obama is a sap who listens to his Democratic and lefty critics, and occasionally changes his mind. That’s pretty much the opposite, in fact, of Nicole Wallace’s slam that “he’s incapable of adapting and adjusting to events.”

He’s either too forceful or too weak, a tyrant or a dupe. He’s never Goldilocks. You can almost hear the Morning Joe crowd: if Obama had postponed his speech in light of the violence in DC, they’d say that means the terrorists have won.

On Morning Joe yesterday, Wallace took another stab at proving the White House is in as much disarray as it was when she worked there; she asked former Obama advisor David Axlerod, Isn’t there anyone who “can walk into the Oval Office and tell the president he just screwed something up?” (Yes, said Axelrod, naming three people off the bat.)

But then, with Joe and Mika absent from the set, guests Carl Bernstein and Lawrence O’Donnell indirectly but firmly critiqued the show’s hysteria itself. Look, said Bernstein, however he did it, Obama avoided war (for now). O’Donnell cited Obama and Kerry’s accomplishments in Syria—”And this comes after a week of everyone complaining about the zig-zag,” he said, adding, “the president is dealing with something as serious as Syria policy…and all you’re getting in the media is a theater review of the performance styles.”

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Obsession with performance styles will lead journalists to say the darnedest things. Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC News, said it wasn’t the media’s job to present the facts on Obamacare, asserting, “What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the president of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”

After getting criticized, Todd tweeted that he was misunderstood: “point I actually made was folks shouldn’t expect media to do job WH has FAILED to do re: ACA.”

Actually, isn’t it the job of the news media, a k a journalism, to find facts and report on their distortions? Isn’t it news when politicians lie? That’s a point CREDO is making in a petition to the NBC News president, saying, “Correcting Republican lies is part of your job.”

Read Leslie Savan's piece on John Kerry's recent, triumphant media gaffe.

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