Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 8, 2009

WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT?.... President Obama chatted with a couple of New York Times reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday, and the interview covered quite a bit of ground. I was taken aback, though, by the NYT approaching this nonsense in a serious way:

Q. The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?

A. You know, let's take a look at the budget -- the answer would be no.

Q. Is there anything wrong with saying yes?

A. Let's just take a look at what we've done....

Let me get this straight. Unhinged and hysterical Republicans have engaged in an absurd red scare, in large part because the White House supports a 39.6% top rate. The very idea that the president's agenda is similar to "socialism" is demonstrably ridiculous. So, given an opportunity to interview with president, the New York Times, arguably one of the world's most prestigious news outlets, asks, "Are you a socialist?"

Indeed, the reporters brought it up again soon after.

Q. Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you're not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?

A. No, I'm not going to engage in that.

During the presidential campaign, it was understandable, I suppose, to ask Candidate Obama to set the record straight about various right-wing memes. But for the paper of record to seriously inquire about the president and socialism lends credence to painfully stupid attacks.

As it turns out, after the interview was over, Obama called the Times to press the point further.

Obama: Just one thing I was thinking about as I was getting on the copter. It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question. I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn't on my watch. And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement – the prescription drug plan without a source of funding. And so I think it's important just to note when you start hearing folks through these words around that we've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can't say the same.

Q. So who's watch are we talking about here?

A. Well, I just think it's clear by the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. And the thing I constantly try to emphasize to people if that coming in, the market was doing fine, nobody would be happier than me to stay out of it. I have more than enough to do without having to worry the financial system. The fact that we've had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.

"It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question." The president sounds a little annoyed. He should be. Sometimes our political discourse is very, very dumb, and journalists who should play a constructive role in making it better often make it worse.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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I'm amazed that those same Republicans who brought us financial Armageddon are still spouting off, and the media is listening. Where's shame gone? Or shunning? Let's revive practices from long ago and ostracize everyone who wears the scarlet 'R'.

And now we hear that healthcare is a 'want,' not a 'need.' Which is just another way of saying "I've got mine, you're on your own.' And the taxpayers are paying for their world class healthcare.

Let everyone who argues for the market be stripped of their privileges, their healthcare, their retirement, and get down here with the rest of us. Pitchforks now.

Posted by: fed up on March 8, 2009 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

Do you know who the "reporter" was? I couldn't find it in the transcript. I want to put him/her on my "do not read" list (along with Nagorney and a few others from the TImes).

Posted by: esaud on March 8, 2009 at 8:45 AM | PERMALINK

"What kind of question is that?" The kind of question they were instructed to ask to provoke tomorrow's headlines. It's not as if journalism is about reportage anymore...

Posted by: mikey on March 8, 2009 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

Minnesota should dish us up a new "Sen McCarthy" to expose these Objectivists that have infiltrated our government, industries, schools, places of worship! Add to future applications for employment; Have you ever been an Objectivist, or attended a meeting of Objectivists?

Posted by: Bathrobespierre on March 8, 2009 at 8:54 AM | PERMALINK

Is it just me, or is competence in VERY short supply these days?

And do journalism schools now have a required class called Gotcha 101?

Posted by: DAY on March 8, 2009 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

Sometimes our political discourse is very, very dumb,...

Sometimes? You give yourselves too much credit.

Posted by: mickscotty on March 8, 2009 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

Minnesota? Try a state just to the southeast.

Sounds a little like a Bumiller and friend

Posted by: berttheclock on March 8, 2009 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

esaud, I listened to the tapes (they've got all the answers, not the all questions) and note that at one point POTUS calls the questioner Jeff. Zeleny is the only Jeff IDed on the story, and a male voice is on NYT's end of the call when Obama says, "I can't believe you were entirely serious ... "; but a female reporter's voice is in on the onboard conversation too. So maybe the doofus was Zeleny, but ain't no way to know for sure.

Posted by: lotus on March 8, 2009 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

He should have thrown the reporters off the plane and told the NYT that only grown-ups were allowed on AF-1.

Remember how Cheney got the name "Big Time?" He and Bush knew very well the mike was live, they were sending a signal to the press. Time for Obama to send a signal.

Posted by: Taylor on March 8, 2009 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

The word "socialist" is the word of the week among conservatives. I was talking to a hard rock conservative last evening and it was "socialist" this and "socialist" that. I finally told him that calling everybody a "socialist" doesn't allow for rational discourse and that I would appreciate he refrain from name calling. He did and we discovered we had more in common than he thought. The Republican play book demands conservatives limit their vocabularies to repeating meaningless scary words and slogans. Since they don't want to solve problems it is all they have.

Posted by: Ron Byers on March 8, 2009 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

And after Obama talks about the unfunded prescription drug program and the bank bailouts not being initiated on his watch, the reporter actually asks "Whose [or "who's" - sic] watch are we talking about?" These are two very specific references that clearly happened on Bush's watch. Is the reporter really that stupid, or more likely, trying to bait Obama into criticizing Bush, trying to stir up some drama instead of asking serious questions? What a bozo.

Posted by: gradysu on March 8, 2009 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

Dang I hate waking up to stupid! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on March 8, 2009 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

Taylor (above) has it right. Throw the dumb asses of AF 1, only do it at 40,000 feet.

Is there any wonder why newspapers are in a death spiral?

Posted by: rich on March 8, 2009 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Or, at least, lock them in a restroom at 40,000 ft. They might become the first members of the Mile High Club on AF1.

Posted by: berttheclock on March 8, 2009 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK
Or, at least, lock them in a restroom at 40,000 ft. They might become the first members of the Mile High Club on AF1.

Yeah, except their doing it to the American public, not each other...

Posted by: idlemind on March 8, 2009 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

"So who's watch are we talking about here?"

What a childish thing to say! *This* is a reporter for the New York Times?

Posted by: Joey Giraud on March 8, 2009 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

well, it is just hard to believe that the President's team did not want to grant an interview sooner to the "paper of Record". like anybody alive could forget Cheney waving the NYTs around to prove there were wmd in Irag after Scooter leaked it to Judy Miller.

I don't recall the NYT or the WaPo or any other "liberal" paper asking bush if the one word to describe his presidency would be "Dictatorship", even after he said it himself.

Posted by: bcinaz on March 8, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Times reporter: Q. So who's watch are we talking about here? You are a socialist, correct?

A: Seriously? Who's watch?

Q: It's a serious question, people want to know if you're a socialist.

A: Look at what we've done-

Q: Aha! You are a socialist! When you were born outside the US, were you a socialist?

Folks, it's called 21st Century journalism.

Posted by: Capt Kirk on March 8, 2009 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

I think we might be making more of this than is necessary. The questions were lame,lazy, and non-constructive but not accusatory either. I think they could be also be seen as softball questions that Obama could use to strike back against insane Republican talking points.

I wish the media were more serious, but until then, Democrats will need to make better use of media 'face time' by setting the record straight and pointing out the GOP is the party of scare and fear.

Posted by: palinoscopy on March 8, 2009 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

I'm glad to see that Obama came up with the only possible response, though he was more polite than I would have been about it. My response probably would have been along the lines of, "What the fuck are you talking about? Are you stupid?"

Posted by: Mnemosyne on March 8, 2009 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Can you image the NYT asking Bush if he is a fascist? Following up by asking if he is a Nazi?

Where do they get these morons? And why?

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig on March 8, 2009 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

How about we ahve a fucking intelligence test before you get to pose questions to the President of the United States? Wait, how about an intelligence test for people before they get to ask me a question? Democracy's biggest problem is the people.


Alan Tomlinson

P.S. Off topic, posting anonymously is quite chickenshit.

Posted by: Alan Tomlinson on March 8, 2009 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Two tactics to suggest:

"No, I'm a communist. I want everything from diapers to Nintendo DS's produced by a one-world government and everything will be packaged in white paper with black bar codes. I'm the end of all freedom. Can we move on to an unrelated topic, now that I've confirmed all your worst fears and some you didn't even know you had? You didn't believe me when I told you the truth, so run the lie and I'll see you in 2012 to see how you handled my term as supreme leader. Asshats."

A little more plausible:

"Reagan and Bush Sr. were socialists. Neither wanted fire protection, police, social security, the military, or our road system privatized. Carter and Clinton similarly thought a few key needs of the population were best served through public management. George W. Bush relegated food inspections to private hands, moved military intelligence to contractors, and sought to privatize social security so I suppose he was less socialist that the other four presidents and I. I think they, and I, have better blueprints for a prosperous nation."


Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on March 8, 2009 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

That was a great interview, the full transcription is worth reading. And that final exchange was a real jewel. The reporter sounded somewhat defensive. Hopefully Obama keeps reminding reporters how we got into this mess.

Posted by: tomj on March 8, 2009 at 12:30 PM | PERMALINK

The proof that this is just more of the same nonsense from the MSM is that they, despite months of bandying the term around, have deigned to ask an actual Socialist what they think about policy or politics. It would never occur to them to put a Swede or a member of the Socialist party on TV, but they consider it more than appropriate to ping-pong this question from the right to the center and back again.

Posted by: jhm on March 8, 2009 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

"Q. Are you a socialist ... ?"

Obama should have responded:

NO. Are you a fascist ?

Posted by: Joe Friday on March 8, 2009 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK


Here's the link to the article written by Zeleny about the follow up call by President Obama. He actually doesn't admit being the one who asked the question or received the call for that matter but it seems he's the culprit. He's also the guy who tried to provoke Obama about Bill Clinton's race baiting on the campaign trail



Same guy.

Posted by: dannyshenanigan on March 8, 2009 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

As I read this post and comments, I cannot help but think that Bush's abject failure helped enable folks to the left of center to reclaim the liberal label. Now, since being a liberal is not enough to get one "tsk-tsked" from the room / discussion, it is necessary to rachet up the rhetoric. It is all of a piece with the "we are a "center-right" nation. John Cole had a great post about the MSM's political press need to protect the status quo, which promotes their own wealth, status, and power. I think the willingness to take up the socialist nonsense without critical evaluation simply is yet another arrow in their quiver - squarely aimed at preserving their own well-being. I also think they are flumoxed by Obama's popularity, and on some level motivated by the idea that "the guy/gal who takes down this popular president - who may actually want to tap the power of the great unwashed to help the great unwashed - will earn a big pay day and a place in the eternal pantheon of cable punditry. In that pantheon, BTW, one never has to answer the question: "What have you done for us lately?"

Posted by: TuiMel on March 8, 2009 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Minor point: the possessive of "who" is "whose", not "who's" (which means "who is").

Posted by: Leisureguy on March 8, 2009 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen wrote:

Sometimes our political discourse is very, very dumb, and journalists who should play a constructive role in making it better often make it worse.

Actually, it's more like this:

Our political discourse is dominated by dishonest, manipulative, scripted corporate-sponsored talking points, and instead of journalists who impartially inform and educate the American people about facts and issues, we have bought-and-paid-for corporate shills who are paid to regurgitate those talking points.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on March 8, 2009 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

Call me a moron, but I liked the question. I have been listening to right-wing radio use the "s" word all week, and I wanted to hear Obama's response. Yes, it's a stupid question, but that's what happens when stupid people are in prominent pundit positions. Obama gave a smart answer, and that's what I wanted to hear.

Posted by: David Crisp on March 8, 2009 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

NYT Q: "Are you a socialist?"

Obama A: "Are you an idiot?"

Posted by: SecularAnimist on March 8, 2009 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

This episode underscores how ridiculous it is to allege that the ongoing demise of the newspaper industry is damaging to our democracy. Cretins like Zeleny, as well as the managers who aid and abet his idiocy, are causing far more damage to democracy than the disappearance of the NYT would create on its own.

Having said that, I think Obama's in-person response was weak, tepid, and timid.

Posted by: bluestateddon on March 8, 2009 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

I am all for honoring market principles when it comes to the future existence of the NYT. The Grey Lady is overdue for her final curtain call.

Posted by: Scott F. on March 8, 2009 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

There are two possibilities here: a) the "journalist" is colossally stupid, or b) he (or she) is a miserable coward AND extremely unimaginative. The reporter is cringing with terror that Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter might call his and the New York Times traitors, pinkos, Obama-worshipers, fill in the drunken or drug-addled slur of your choice, and therefore he wants to show that he can stand up to the President with a tough question worthy of a grade-school playground slagging contest. Of course, Limbaugh and Coulter will go right on referring to the New York Times as the "Baghdad Times" and calling it a hotbed of treasonous leftism no matter what the actual facts may be. But this is how journalists these days display their "intellectual" "independence," aka absolute lack of spine.

Posted by: T-Rex on March 8, 2009 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

If NYT wanted a single-word label, it should have bought itself a bottle of ketchup, instead of paying Jeff (with or without Mutt) for the interview. They could, then, spend some money on people who can transcribe spoken text. Several of you caught the "Q. So who's watch are we talking about here?" as being a misspelling of "whose". But there was another, even worse blooper, in the para above, in Obama's answer:
[...] when you start hearing folks through these words around [...]
Not "through" these words around, but "throw"...

Posted by: exlibra on March 8, 2009 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

God, I love this guy.

Posted by: Jon on March 9, 2009 at 12:24 AM | PERMALINK



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