Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 12, 2009

ATTENTION TO DETAIL.... A few weeks ago, MSNBC's First Read had an item questioning whether President Obama "knows too much" about health care policy. The piece complained that the president is willing to offer Americans details about reform, which means going "into the weeds."

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman raised a similar concern today, arguing that Obama cares too much about policy details.

"President Obama, not only does he want to hear about the unemployment rates -- he wants to hear about the U6, the underemployment rate! A few weeks ago, they were talking about child obesity rates, and what to do about childhood nutrition. These things go into the weeds."

This, apparently, is criticism, not praise. The president who inherited a devastating economic crisis is interested in U6 numbers -- a measure that includes the unemployed, those who are working part-time but want full-time employment, and those who've simply given up -- and this, we're told, is somehow evidence of excessive interest in detail.

It's an odd complaint. When the president goes beyond poll-tested soundbites, he's going "into the weeds." When the president wants a more reliable measurement of the employment landscape, he's gone "into the weeds." When the president can speak about childhood nutrition, he's gone "into the weeds."

Dan Froomkin has this just right.

There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to be concerned about Obama's approach to governing.

But particularly after the presidency of George W. Bush, who so often seemed detached both from details and reality, Obama's intellectual curiosity is one thing journalists in particular should celebrate, not sneer at. It's the know-nothings we should be exposing, not the know-somethings.

I can't help but wonder if there's some kind of resentment, for lack of a better word, among reporters who are annoyed by Obama's attention to detail. Perhaps they'd prefer a more superficial president because they have a more superficial perspective?

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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The WSJ is absolutely right. A president should be a big-picture kind of guy, not an obsessive-compulsive micro-manager. The details should be left to minions.

Posted by: Al on August 12, 2009 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

It's hard for a reporter to look really smart when the president know more detail about policy than the reporter does. Just another reason to resent Obama. Palin is easy game for reporters so they love her.

Posted by: E L on August 12, 2009 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps they'd prefer a more superficial president because they have a more superficial perspective?

That's a big part of it...but probably the biggest issue is that it's pretty easy to make yourself look smart when you're covering a dumb guy. When you're covering a smart guy and you're not smart enough to understand the details of what he proposes or what he's saying it's not so easy to pretend you're the smart one. So instead you complain that all these details are just boring and uncool.

Posted by: Jennifer on August 12, 2009 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

The irony is that when he talks about healthcare, he often says "and we will do X" but since there's no actual plan yet, we don't know how it's actually going to be done.

I see this as a failing, because there's not ENOUGH concrete detail.

Posted by: MNPundit on August 12, 2009 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Being a wonk isn't a bad thing, but sometimes it doesn't translate into neat 30 second soundbites for the evening news or it can result in rambling detailed press conference answers which surpass the general public's attention span or need-to-know specifics.

Posted by: Walt on August 12, 2009 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

a huge knock on Obama during the campaign was that he was "all rhetoric" no substance... whatever happened to that?

Posted by: kp on August 12, 2009 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen wrote: "I can't help but wonder if there's some kind of resentment, for lack of a better word, among reporters who are annoyed by Obama's attention to detail."

The corporate-owned media's so-called "reporters" are "annoyed" by Obama's efforts to govern in the public interest rather than in the corporate interest.

Steve wrote: "Perhaps they'd prefer a more superficial president because they have a more superficial perspective?"

They would prefer a president who is a shill for corporate interests -- just like they are.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on August 12, 2009 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

"I can't help but wonder if there's some kind of resentment, for lack of a better word, among reporters who are annoyed by Obama's attention to detail. Perhaps they'd prefer a more superficial president because they have a more superficial perspective?"

These reporters are unintelligent, incoherent, lazy idiots who can't relate to a President who can intelligently answer questions...most times they are left with no follow-up because that would mean they would have to actually think! My god, heaven forbid that to ever happen. I'm frustrated with them all...no fact checking...no calling out of people who are actually lying - and they are LYING.

Posted by: whichwitch on August 12, 2009 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Well I don't think its too mysterious. Details are boring and boring loses audience share and effects their bottom line. This is obviously a crude oversimplification but in a general sense a folksy president that conveys economic concepts in the context of simple minded narratives (preferably including concepts of good and evil) makes it easier to sell papers to a wider audience. Detailed discussion "in the weeds" can hurt their audience share and ultimately their paycheck.

Posted by: brent on August 12, 2009 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Scares the pee-waddlin' out of them to contemplate not only how much more he knows than they do, but how obvious that is to viewers who within the hour will be pantsing them on the blogs. It's only getting worse over time too, poor lambs.

Posted by: lotus on August 12, 2009 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

It goes along with their general innumeracy. If you can't understant rations, percentages, and the difference between debt and deficit, you can't cover someone making numberically cogent arguments.

Posted by: Dave on August 12, 2009 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not so sure that Bush ever got as close as 30k feet. I think he floated off in a helium balloon where his brain was deprived of oxygen.

To compare the micro-manage/big picture view with something more common.

If the big picture is knowing what school your kids go to and what grade they are in, then in the weeds is knowing who their teachers are and what grades they are making. And in the mud would be attending a parent/teacher conference.

Another way to look at it is that over the last eight years, the weeds have had plenty of time to grow up to 30,000 feet.

Posted by: tomj on August 12, 2009 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

It's the know-nothings we should be exposing, not the know-somethings.

I think the problem is that Obama is exposing many in the political press as know-nothings. He's making them work for a living.

It was much easier to cover a know-nothing president.

Posted by: Jinchi on August 12, 2009 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Also, covering a more intelligent president is harder work than covering a dull one. So, to recap: covering Obama requires a) more brainpower, b) more work, and c) coming to grips with your own shortcomings in these areas.

Posted by: Dan on August 12, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

"a huge knock on Obama during the campaign was that he was "all rhetoric" no substance... whatever happened to that?"
Posted by: kp on August 12, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Now it's all rhetoric and no leadership. And I was an Obama supporter, albeit lukewarm after his FISA flip-flop. I don't expect miracles in 7 months, but I expect leadership, and instead we have more rhetoric and more flip-flops.

Posted by: msmolly on August 12, 2009 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know. Let's ask Al Gore.

Posted by: Hoyt Pollard on August 12, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

I think the reporters are upset because a President going into the details forces them to do the same. That exactly all the intellectually lazy reporters and pundits do not like to do. How could they appear 10 times a day on the tube if they will have waste time to research and learn the details. If there is one group of people responsible for the present superficial political discourse, they are all the TV personnel from the top managers/producers to the last reporter (save the ones on PBS).

Posted by: Yoni on August 12, 2009 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

What was Mike Judge thinking when he set Idiocracy 500 years in the future? We're there right now.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on August 12, 2009 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Wesmain, in the WSJ article, is grasping to link Obama with Carter, which is really disingenuous.

So far Obama seems to be as knowledgable as Bill Clinton was, but obviously the Big Dog was too popular, so they had to go back to Carter. And, of course, you couldn't accuse any of the last three Republican presidents of being overly concerned with policy.

I don't see any evidence of "micromanaging" in the WSJ article. I'd call it "informed managing." He is not telling his advisers what to do, but he is introducing other voices into the debate. One of the dangers of any powerful position is that your flow of information becomes manipulated by your advisers, so that anything that is counter to their views. But not Obama:

In the sessions, according to those who attend, the president sometimes chafes at his advisers' limitations, quizzing them on points raised by critics or asking them to do justice to a view other than their own. At times he quotes from letters sent to the White House to counter a stance taken by his team.

How awesome is that? Not only does Obama know a lot, but he is willing to continue to find out more, and expects his advisors to defend their ideas. Brilliant.

Posted by: inkadu on August 12, 2009 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

Because an educated, intelligent, well-informed citizenry is essential to the functioning of a democratic society, a major function of the corporate-owned media is to make people ignorant and stupid. The corporate media is VERY, VERY good at this. They not only withhold facts and disseminate falsehoods, but actually degrade the cognitive capabilities of their audience.

By speaking to the American people in an informative and intelligent way, which not only gives them good information but encourages them to think intelligently about that information, Obama undermines the corporate media's efforts to "dumb down" the American people. That's why they don't like him.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on August 12, 2009 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

It might be reporters are annoyed at President Obama's attention to detail because they are so inept at their jobs they just can't take in what he says; in other words, if somebody says four words together that make sense, that's just to much for them to retain. They got too stupid and lazy under the Bush administration.

Posted by: MillerTN on August 12, 2009 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hate to be a dittohead, but I'll echo what others have said. Between the idea that reporters don't want to look like they're in the tank for Obama (liberal bias, don't cha know) and Obama's attention to detail forces those same reporters to go into detail with their audience (who, they fear - sometimes for good reason - hates detail and nuance and prefers good old gossip), having to cover Obama is more work for them than they'd like. They might wind up looking stupid, they might wind up losing audience share from a bored audience. Far better to make it look like they have an adversarial relationship with the President.

Plus, he doesn't invite them over for barbeques nearly enough

Posted by: slappy magoo on August 12, 2009 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

inkadu has it completely right--the media is trying to paint Obama as the New Carter.

And I think Chuck Todd is still steaming 'cause all last year he fell for the Obama campaign's story line, every month, that fund raising was lagging. Todd would be on teevee talking about the mighty Obama fund raising machine falling short, then the campaign would announce another record-breaking month. That had to get to him.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on August 12, 2009 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

This goes back at least as far as Carter. His presidency "failed" according to MSMCW because he tried to "control everything". A story even came out claiming that he managed the tennis court reservations at the White House. They loved Reagan because he was a "big picture" guy, attacked Clinton for his wonkishness, loved W for his lack of curiosity.

It will never change if it didn't after W.

Posted by: howie on August 12, 2009 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Because it isn't cool to be so smart! So says the popular kids.

It is really just high school over and over again, isn't it?

Besides ... what do you expect from the WST, and from any publication owned by Rupert Murdoch?

Posted by: Bokonon on August 12, 2009 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Under-employment stats don't sell ad space, claims of euthanizing the handicap does.

I am a firm believer in the government only allowing the word 'News' to not for profit companies. Then at least the sensationalism peddlers can report what sells and legitimate 'News' companies can report news.

Posted by: ScottW on August 12, 2009 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

Obama makes our MSM stenographers work too hard. That's all this is. He makes them actually do the jobs they were supposedly trained to do. They resent that.


Posted by: LL on August 12, 2009 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Details make Mika's head hurt!

Posted by: Allan Snyder on August 12, 2009 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

A Republican president doesn't have to worry about details, since his goal is to govern as little as possible. It's only Deomcrats who are worried about providing effective, goal-oriented government. So it's only Democrats who have to sweat the details.

Posted by: Virginia on August 12, 2009 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

The more facts a president spouts the more facts a journalist has to check. Modern journalists hate fact checking because it gets in the way of being able to spew opinions without regard to the facts.

Posted by: Barbara on August 12, 2009 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

I bet Barack's not that smart really. I bet he only asked about the U-6 number because of that Bible verse on the cover page.

Posted by: JohnMcC on August 12, 2009 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

Oh please...Rachel Maddow is into the details way more. When did she become an investigative journalist.

Posted by: wockeezy1 on August 12, 2009 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

When Bush was President, the WSJ and other 'liberal rags' used to fill in the blank spaces he left by making shit up, which oddly then became talking points, that morphed into half-assed policy positions.

Obama does not leave a lot of room to 'fill in the details' with made up stuff, hence the wild speculation (i.e. euthanasia, death panels, killing Medicare) that turns into facts in the brains of authoritarian racists who want more than anything to deny reality.

Posted by: bcinaz on August 12, 2009 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

The press hates and resents it because today's crop of political journalists believes political coverage is and of right should be a specific flavor of celebrity/sports coverage. Back a thousand years ago -- you know, in those prehistoric days of the 1970s and even the 1980s -- there was this notion that politics was about *policy*, and that therefore the press should report on the substance of policy debates in some useful and informed way. Which in turn meant that reporters who wanted to cover politics would by nature tend to be those who had a genuine interest in policy themselves.

Now that politics is reported on as though it were a kind of football game populated by soap-opera characters, it is only natural that it would attract a different sort of journalist. The kind of journalist who is, to put it as gently as possible, more interested in celebrity than in policy. And also, the kind who cannot fail to notice that the field may make the journalist herself into a celebrity.

With GWB, they could cope. They understood him. They understood the rules: they could simultaneously admire him for his caste status and office and sneer at him for being less pretty and articulate than they were. All was right with their universe.

With Obama, though, they're hopelessly out of their element. They can rationalize the status thing by categorizing him in their own minds as a bona fide celebrity of the first caliber, but the ones who want to cast him in a villain role are frustrated by the way he keeps not doing anything they can construct a villainy narrative from, while the ones who want him to be all heroic and glamorous don't know what to do about all the wonkiness. (He talks about underemployment! How are you supposed to make that look grand and history-defining? Why can't the man speak in short words and land on an aircraft carrier now and then??)

Thus, I suspect, at least some of the sheer strangeness of the reporting. These people have to fill their columns and television and radio hours with something, and while Obama is giving real policy types plenty to work with, the media types we have don't know how to cope with what they're getting. They're trying their best to do their jobs, as they conceive their jobs to be. The result may be insane, but it's a kind of hideously overdetermined flavor of insane.

Posted by: fiorinda on August 12, 2009 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

George W. Bush can't even spell "U6."

Posted by: Randy on August 12, 2009 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

GOP SOP. WJC was also roundly bashed by the nutters for being too smart and knowledgeable.

Posted by: Disputo on August 12, 2009 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK

The reporters have probably gotten too used to knowing more about any subject than the president and feel demeaned by one who knows more about just about every policy subject than they do. This was one of the main reasons Gore lost.

Posted by: Mayson Lancaster on August 12, 2009 at 11:09 PM | PERMALINK

Agree with the idea that really this is just journalists realizing that they're a lot, lot dumber than the guy they are covering. They're not used to that - haven't seen that since 1992-2000.

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