Political Animal


October 10, 2011 10:40 AM Has Thomas Friedman met Barack Obama?

By Steve Benen

In August, Thomas Friedman presented a policy platform he believes is absent from America’s political discourse, but neglected to mention that it was practically word-for-word the same platform President Obama already supports. In September, Friedman did it again. And over the weekend, the NYT columnist did it once more.

In this case, Friedman was praising the legacy of Steve Jobs, in part because he “personified so many of the leadership traits we know are missing from our national politics.” Jobs, Friedman argued, was a visionary, and “there isn’t a single national politician today” like him.

It’s tempting to note the differences between a political leader and a corporate CEO. Imagine, for example, what Apple would be like if Jobs’ board of directors refused to approve any new products and openly admitted that they intended to destroy Jobs’ tenure before the next stock-holders’ meeting. (If you think that’s hyperbole, watch Washington more carefully.)

But let’s put that aside for now, and consider Friedman’s case.

Neither party is saying: Here is the world we are living in; here are the big trends; here is our long-term plan for rolling up our sleeves to ensure that America thrives in this world because it is not going to come easy; nothing important ever does.

What is John Boehner’s vision? I laugh just thinking about the question. What is President Obama’s vision? I cry just thinking about the question. The Republican Party has been taken over by an antitax cult, and Obama just seems lost. Obama supporters complain that the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn. That is true. But why have they gotten away with it?

Maybe because of columns like these, which cast a pox on both houses, when only one deserves it?

“What is President Obama’s vision?” Tom, it’s the same vision you’ve already endorsed.

I saw Friedman on “The Daily Show” last week, presenting the “formula for success” that the nation has traditionally embraced: investments in education, investments in infrastructure, safeguards against financial industry recklessness, sensible immigration policies, and expansive government-funded research. Who supports all of these priorities? The president Friedman condemns as “lost” and lacking vision.

If Friedman disapproves of Obama’s (and his own) vision, that’s fine; he can make the case against it and offer an alternative. If he wants policymakers to be responsible and act on the president’s forward-thinking agenda, that’d make a good column, too.

But this columnist has a bad habit of presenting sound, sensible ideas, but pretending that the White House isn’t already on his side. It’s more than bizarre; it does a disserve to readers who would benefit from a more complete picture.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • hack on October 10, 2011 10:45 AM:

    Friedman is a moron. He is the epitome of the modern pundit -- totally self-absorbed, totally out-of-touch with the real world. He's the type that allow the Rs to have such success.

  • Bat of Moon on October 10, 2011 10:50 AM:

    On a CNN interview Sunday, Friedman repeated some of this stuff, and also said he was disappointed that Obama was criticizing millionaires. Of course, Friedman is a millionaire married to an extremely wealthy wife, and I suspect he talks mostly to other millionaires, so that's no surprise.

  • DAY on October 10, 2011 10:54 AM:

    let's not forget that Apple's board of directors once fired Steve Jobs.

  • Seth on October 10, 2011 10:55 AM:

    I think Friedman must know he's advocating for a bolder version of the Democratic platform.

    My take is that he avoids saying that because he doesn't want to be marginalized as "partisan" or "biased" as tends to happen to pundits who point out obvious differences between the parties. Agreed it's bizarre, but maybe he reaches a wider audience that way

  • Jaleh on October 10, 2011 11:05 AM:

    I had a 10 minute conversation with Thomas Friedman this past Summer after he wrote his book and was promoting a third party. I told him he is doing this just to sell his book. He told me he voted for Obama and he will vote for him again but could not explain why he was promoting a third party. I think he is just a pundit who wants to sell books. I used to read his articles and books, no more, I can't stand the guy, I am not sure what has happened to him.

  • wab on October 10, 2011 11:06 AM:

    Friedman is an idiot and has always been an idiot. Why anyone would pay any attention to anything he says is beyond me. Has he ever done anything constructive (as opposed to just blabbing all the time)?

  • scott_m on October 10, 2011 11:08 AM:

    [Friedman] has a bad habit of presenting sound, sensible ideas, but pretending that the White House isnt already on his side.

    Thomas Friedman has many bad habits, including a use of metaphor that's like an olive tree run down by a Lexus, a penchant for hailing taxis whose drivers are thinking exactly what he is, and a tendency to present starry-eyed platitudes as visionary nuggets of wisdom. Not to mention being insufferably above it all.

    I stopped reading him years ago. He used to make sense when he wrote about Israel/Palestine/Syria/Lebanon. Is he still okay in that area, or has he gone off the deep end there also?

  • TonyGreco on October 10, 2011 11:11 AM:

    I agree with Steve and Seth. Friedman's problem is that he is more or less precisely in the same place as Obama ideologically, but he can't admit it, because then he would identify himself as "partisan," which is a no-no among our ostensibly objective, serious and sensible commentariat. Much better to contrive faux differences with Obama; then he can claim to be pushing for something original and different, a "radical center," and sell books about it.

  • ComradeAnon on October 10, 2011 11:11 AM:

    Did you hear about the time that Jobs went before the Apple Board and said that the company was spending too much. They asked him what he wanted to do about it. He said he wanted to reduce sales. DOH! That was the republicans, not Jobs!

  • Lifelong Dem on October 10, 2011 11:12 AM:

    ... what Apple would be like if Jobs board of directors refused to approve any new products and openly admitted that they intended to destroy Jobs tenure before the next stock-holders meeting

    Actually, both of those happened during the early years of Apple. Jobs created a skunkworks group in a building apart from Apple's headquarters to develop the Macintosh in secret. Later, John Sculley, whom Jobs recruited to be CEO, led a board revolt and fired Jobs. In the 80s, Apple was a lot like today's Washington.

  • Ron Byers on October 10, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Friedman is paid to be an "original thinker." How is he promoting his reputation by acknowledging he is merely repackaging Obama's program?

  • EC Sedgwick on October 10, 2011 11:15 AM:

    Tell me again what is it that Apple build in the United States?

  • Deanarms on October 10, 2011 11:28 AM:

    I was going to post what I thought was an original comment, but then I read everyone else's and I agree 500% with what all the other commenters here have said. Friedman is a self absorbed counterproductive weenie who does absolutely nothing to advance the conversation. If anything he sets the cause back with his particularly irritating use of false equivalency. And I especially agree with Steve B that yesterday's column was especially galling.

  • kc on October 10, 2011 11:31 AM:

    Friedman is completely worthless.

    And am I the only person in America who does not worship Steve Jobs as a god? I mean, he was a great inventor and businessman, but the way people have been carrying on about him, you'd think he was the second coming.

  • Phil on October 10, 2011 11:38 AM:

    I used to read Friedman religiously in the early days. But then he began simplifying every discussion to the level of a fifth grader, making metaphors about everything. He was once reported to explain this to another columnist as being necessary, as his audience needed to see things in simple terms and could not understand nuances. Yes, it seems it's all about selling books. He's guilty of ignoring Obama's position and trying to be a equal opportunity critic when it comes to Washington. It's a real shame because others in the press (Halperin, etc.)seem to be doing the same and Obama deserves better. Friedman should take note of Krugman's approach: tell it like it is.

  • Leoguy on October 10, 2011 11:49 AM:

    "Obama supporters complain that the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn. That is true. But why have they gotten away with it?"
    Why? Because of VSP like you! The R's get away with it because they know from experience they can lie without regard to the consequences. As a result, they have the votes to block legislation. Even you should be able to understand this!

  • LJL on October 10, 2011 12:01 PM:

    Not only is Tom Friedman saying Obama has no vision but it seems to be the orthodox scenario invented by popular commentators. They are all willing to ascribe a vision (albeit anti-taxism) to Obama's opponents. Buy they have all fallen into the racist fallacy that can't admit a non-white can have a worthwhile thought. I have listened to Barack Obama for four years I I don't hear a lack of vision or any kind and I don't hear any wavering on principles. So why do so many of the paid pundits hear nothing from him but weakness and indecision?

  • benjoya on October 10, 2011 12:22 PM:

    even when friedman's right, he's wrong

  • gus on October 10, 2011 1:20 PM:

    "Tell me again what is it that Apple build in the United States?-- EC S. wrote

    The company builds stores and renovates buildings.
    At one point, it did manufacture every product here in the states, in California and Texas primarily. But, now, not so much. If anything it has stores and services. It does manufacture a lot of specialty things in low runs, too. So, the company does spend money domestically to make things. But, I guess you could say the same about Wal-Mart and youd be right.

    As for Tommy Friedman, hes awfully full of himself and it must be awful for him to have to deal with that fact.

  • ohhenery on October 10, 2011 1:24 PM:

    Visions are a tad overrated.

  • DenverRight on October 10, 2011 1:34 PM:

    First, let me agree with others here that Friedman is completely worthless.

    But then let me ask, why would BENEN try to say that President Obama has shared Friedman's vision all along??? It is clear that Obama is partly OFF THAT RESERVATION.

    Friedman clearly stated that "we have to cut spending, raise tax revenues and invest in this formula. [quality education and infrastructure, open immigration, the right rules to incentivize risk-taking and government-financed scientific research]."

    If that is the "shared vision" for recovery, perhaps someone could explain the first of that 3-legged stool in the "Friedman/Obama" vision. Explain it to Obama. In 2008 the federal budget was 2.9 trillion. President Obam increased the baseline of that budget to 3.8 trillion by 2011, a 31% increase in three years (during a recession and decreasing revenues). President Obama presented his 10-year vision for fiscal restraint last month ("Living Within Our Means...), in which he projected to cut deficits by a net $3 trillion in 10 years. All accomplished in expanding budgets.

    Of course we know that 10-year plans are merely acts of egotism, and a lazy way to push any pain to future administrations. 1. We already have a deficit THIS YEAR that was DOUBLE the administration's prediction two years ago. 2.The Budget Control Act that was finally passed this August (under threats of Armageddon - default) saved exactly $21 billion this year (stand back I may swoon from that amount of spending cuts).

    If you want to call Obama's plan a spending cuts plan, go ahead. But virtually ALL of the "cuts" come from caps and REDUCING THE EXPANSION of budgets. His "10 year plan" still has a $600 billion by 2022, and that assumes that a growing economy will catch up to the expanding budgets. In WashingtonSpeak, that's spending cuts.

    I don't have the magic solution to our current problems. But as much as the Republicans in Congress fights the second part of Friedman's vision (raise tax revenues), Obama fights the first (cut spending). Now someone explain that to Benen.

  • Paul on October 10, 2011 1:40 PM:

    I don't think this clueless columnist ever reads his own columns. He advocated for invading Iraq, but seems to have "forgotten" about that. Reading his drivel is assets of time and column space.

  • Anonymous on October 10, 2011 2:07 PM:

    In the clip he talked about how the largest employer in his area used to be a steel mill that provided good middle class jobs. Now the largest employer is Johns Hopkins. Friendman claims that you needed a BA just to cut the grass. Seriously? Does he know anything about.. well anything? Who does the laundry, who sweeps the floor, who prepares the food? Does anyone believe that you really need a degree to cut the grass?
    I don't know the numbers but I'd guess for every doctor or nurse in a place like Johns Hopkins, you probably have 4 or 5 blue collar jobs just running the place.
    The point for me being that, as usual, with any sort of scrutiny, his narrative falls apart.

  • Cha on October 10, 2011 2:26 PM:

    Thank you, Paul @ 1:40pm... That was quite the "visionary", wasn't it? Right up there with bush and freakin' cheney. Obama was against the war on Iraq and layed it out explicitly in a very visionary speech he gave on Oct 2, 2002 in Illinois.

    "Friedman is disappointed Obama is criticizing millionaires"?! Oh, like the Billionaire, Warren Buffet?

    Freidman is an idiot and evidently a "cryer" like John Boehner over nothing.

  • FRP on October 10, 2011 3:04 PM:

    The habitually lazy contrarian observations that are warmly adopted as 'thinking' serve the usual self satisfied congratulatory founts of dreck as they speed towards a preening level rising to a level requiring a license for a brothel .
    There is no Friedman/Obama vision , as Mr Benen pointed out (apparently in abstruse terminology) . It serves no one but Mr Friedman's purpose to 'archly' ape the Obama administrations policy positions . This is simply pointed out in that it satisfies the conventions of the modern post factual new narrative journalistic acceptance that regardless of the quaint and sentimental attachment to facts in a published reflection of events and culture , the murder victim is as completely responsible for their demise as the murderer .
    The only thing shared by Friedman and Obama is the air they breath . This is because Friedman and his ilk have yet to patent their discovery of breathing .
    In light of a politician who shook the American establishment with a hope of unambiguously working with all Americans , the introduction of this as an act of egoism is a supreme surrender to the tired mealy mouthed Conservative death panel , birther , promotional tripe .
    Thanks for providing the comparable equivalency to a Friedman horns waggle of a brief , alas still interminable , descent into disgusting and empty comparisons .

  • Crissa on October 10, 2011 3:28 PM:

    Here, here, Lifelong Dem, you beat me to it. That totally happened. Apple's board didn't want to foot any R&D after Lisa - well, they didn't want to foot that, either - which really led to the dearth of new Apple products after the Mac and until Jobs came back.

    Ironically, one of the reasons Jobs was able to come back was because Microsoft, as Gates as leaving, propped up the company because half of their non-OS sales were on the platform. I have a side belief they needed a competitor that was technologically ahead of them, too, to take the blood off the bleeding edge.

  • Robert Waldmann on October 10, 2011 4:50 PM:

    The question
    "the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn... But why have they gotten away with it?" is ambiguous.

    Is Friedman hasking how that they have blocked Obama without becoming widely detested ? If so, he should look at the polls. Approval of the Republican party is near record lows.

    Or is he asking how they have manged to block Obama at every turn ? If so, he should look at the rules of the Senate. The Republicans have almost always had the power to block Obama provided they were ruthless and shameless enough. During the brief period when they couldn't block Obama with the filibuster the Democrats reformed health care financing, doing what pundits confidently predicted couldn't be done.

    This isn't as striking as your point, but, of course Obama doesn't seem lost. He has a clear agenda and he is pushing it without reservations. He may have been lost up until the jobs speech (I think he was just acting lost until the Republicans released their hostages). I think that, to the extent he had anything in mind at all "lost" means "incapable of saving the country" which means "is just President and can't do much while the Republicans control the house and can filibuster in the Senate."
    The logic is "things are going badly, so the President must share a large part of the blame -- pretty much by the definitions of 'President' and 'blame'." In this, I think Friedman thinks as most US adults think.

    I don't agree with your view that the blame for Republicans getting away with trying to block Obama is due to pundits like Friedman. I don't think any pundit has much influence on public opinion. Rather I think the public blames Obama for not being a strong enough leader to get things done -- that is they are clueless about the rules of the Senate. In fact they still blame him even though there is a Republican majority in the house.

    To me the deep mystery is that intelligent people think highly of Friedman. My father (who is very very smart) does. I really don't get it.

  • Krowe on October 10, 2011 5:02 PM:

    Three words: "Suck .. On ... This".
    I forever lost what little respect I may have had for Friedman - not just because he supported the Iraq invasion, but because his justification was so childish and immoral. We needed to go to war so little Tommy could feel like a big man. Easy when it's other folks doing the dying.
    And he's an awful writer.

  • Jacqueline on October 10, 2011 10:51 PM:

    I saw Friedman on Fareed Zakaria's GPS and I thought for a moment that I was going crazy because everything, not some, everything he says, Obama not only proposes it, he offers policy position to realize it legislatively: public/private partnership, focus and steer the country towards green jobs, focus on education and innovation etc.
    He said that there is no vision and I really don't get it. I think that he does it to sell books and if so, he's part of the problem, not the answer. To think, I use to listen to him but I now realize it is not about truth, these pundits are con artists. It took me some time to face the truth but I face it now. They are con men, being contrarian to get another buck.

  • Elf M. Sternberg on October 11, 2011 12:02 AM:

    You just don't understand. Obama is the problem because, well, because he's a lightning rod that causes political recklessness. It doesn't matter what Obama's policies are: in case you hadn't noticed, he's a Democrat, so the Republicans are eager to forbid him any legacy.

    So for Friedman, the only responsible thing for Obama to do would be to throw the election and let someone in who'll do something. After all, when Reagan was in power, he pursued policies eerily similar to Obama's, so if we elect a Republican, at least something will get done.

  • FRP on October 11, 2011 1:43 AM:

    Ah Krowe , I don't wonder if Freedymahn gets little thrill up and down his pampered little leg when he is reminded of his tough swaggering period .
    Elf M. Sternberg , nut , meet shell .

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