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Media, Progressives, Obama – Oh My!

Progressives and Obama. They love him, they hate him, they should support him, they’re inevitably disappointed in him. We’ve heard it all. Given that we already have a good idea of how conservatives feel about the President, the media seem increasingly interested in analyzing and discussing the relationship between progressive Americans and President Barack Obama. The Nation and Politico offer two interesting takes: blame it on the political structure vs. blame it on bad politics.

In The Nation, Eric Alterman wrote a piece arguing that a progressive presidency, at least for now, is not possible in this country. In doing so, he immediately states — as if fact — that most people who call themselves progressives would be underwhelmed by Obama:

Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment.

Alterman devotes his lengthy piece to what he says is the reason progressive leaders cannot have their way in America: structural limitations.

Face it, the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us. Sure, presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence. But what they cannot do, even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress behind them, is pass the kind of transformative progressive legislation that Barack Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign.

While Alterman’s argument lays out how our political structure prevents progressive legislation, a piece in Politico uses the argument to support “why Obama wins by losing.” In it, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei discuss how despite his achievements, Obama is widely perceived as “flirting with a failed presidency”:

You can argue over whether Obama’s achievements are good or bad on the merits. But, especially after Thursday’s vote, you can’t argue that Obama is not getting things done.

The problem is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics or communications — in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built. And the promises he made in two years of campaigning turn out to be much less appealing as actual policies.

The Politico piece does have a good premise, but the Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins rightly points out faults — including the issue that most of the story is based entirely on anonymous sources, with authors simply stating “interviews with officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and with Democratic operatives around town.”

Furthermore, Linkins takes issue with how the Politico writers downplayed unemployment. Linkins’ makes a sound critique, because the numbers prove (as they have for years) that unemployment numbers are directly correlated to a president’s approval ratings.

These above mentioned pieces are legitimate examples of political analysis. Yet the broader picture seems to show an increasing interest in how progressives specifically might assess Obama’s presidency. Perhaps this is because we already know how conservatives feel (and it’s not pretty). Perhaps it is because we’re sure to hear more and more about how independents feel as November edges closer.

Yet, at least right now, the focus on progressives seems a bit disproportionate. What kind of effect does this kind of semi-polarizing coverage have on the country’s dramatically polarized political landscape? It would be naive to think the media does not influence the public — and while these individual publications may not be reaching everyone, the big picture does. In an ideal world, we would focus more on policy and ideas. In the real world, most things seem to be defined by political parties.

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