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November 16, 2011 12:40 PM Thomas Friedman, the White House will return your calls

By Steve Benen

As regular readers know, it’s been frustrating for much of the year to watch Thomas Friedman develop a very bad habit. Every month or so, the New York Times columnist will complain that President Obama is failing to take a certain action, apparently unaware that the president has already taken that action.

This morning’s column offers an especially egregious example.

Here we are in America again on the eve of a major budgetary decision by yet another bipartisan “supercommittee,” and does anyone know what President Obama’s preferred outcome is? Exactly which taxes does he want raised, and which spending does he want cut? The president’s politics on this issue seems to be a bowl of poll-tested mush.

I don’t know why Friedman doesn’t just pick up the phone and call the White House to get more information if he’s confused.

In this case, “does anyone know what President Obama’s preferred outcome is”? Actually, everyone with access to the Internet can find out exactly what the president’s preferred outcome is. The administration published a detailed, 80-page report (pdf), outlining exactly what the White House supports. If Friedman didn’t want to read the fairly comprehensive document, the administration even prepared fact sheets and summaries for more casual readers. If one didn’t want to read anything, both the president and members of his team have given speeches about it.

For that matter, as Matt Yglesias noted this morning, “My guess is that if Friedman phones up the OMB press office someone there would be happy to walk him through it.”

What seems especially important, though, is not just Friedman’s mistake today. Even Pulitzer Prize winners occasionally slip and make lazy claims without checking Google. The larger problem is that Friedman does this all the time.

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 in early October, the NYT columnist did it once more.

Friedman went on “The Daily Show” and mentioned the “formula for success” he’d like to see the nation embrace. The columnist argued that policymakers have “gotten away from” this formula, without mentioning that Obama already agrees with all of it.

Over the weekend, Friedman appeared on CBS to complain that the president isn’t presenting an economic plan that focuses on stimulus in the short-term and debt-reduction over the long-term — despite the fact that the president has already presented an economic plan that focuses on stimulus in the short-term and debt-reduction over the long-term.

I’m left with the impression that Thomas Friedman is complaining about President Obama (a) just for the sake of complaining; and (b) without any meaningful understanding of the policies the president is already pursuing.

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 act on the president’s forward-thinking agenda, that’d make a good column, too.

But the columnist has an increasingly-bizarre habit of challenging the White House to take his advice, and then ignoring the fact that the White House already has.

And why does Friedman do this? Greg Sargent’s explanation sounds about right to me: “Self-styled ‘centrist’ columnists have a perennial problem on their hands. They have built reputations by calling for middle-of-the-road solutions to our problems. Yet they can’t acknowledge that Obama and Democrats are the ones who are offering solutions that are genuinely centrist, because that would constitute ‘taking sides.’ This would imperil their ‘brand,’ which rests heavily on transcending partisanship, and on their ongoing insistence that the future depends on following a middle ground between the parties.”

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.

Comments

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  • c u n d gulag on November 16, 2011 12:48 PM:

    "I just donít know why Friedman doesnít just pick up the phone and call the White House to get more information if heís confused."
    Or, the twit could pick up his own newspaper and read it!

    Let's leave things the way they are with him and see what happens.

    Maybe if we give Friedman another 6 months, we'll see some progress...

  • RT on November 16, 2011 12:50 PM:

    Kinda hard to transcend partisanship when one of the parties is hyperpartisan.

  • low-tech cyclist on November 16, 2011 12:51 PM:

    It's one thing when the Tea Party relies on steadfastly maintaining ignorance in order to maintain its 'brand.' And it's considerably worse when the GOP as a whole does the same.

    But it should be just plain embarrassing for a supposedly intelligent pundit to find himself in the same situation.

  • low-tech cyclist on November 16, 2011 12:54 PM:

    Maybe if we give Friedman another 6 months, we'll see some progress...

    The next six months will be critical! ;)

  • Ron Byers on November 16, 2011 12:55 PM:

    Friedman's real complaint is the working press, horse race enthusiasts to a person, don't ever report the President's actual positions, at least not above on the front page and above the fold.

    After all Friedman is just a columnist. He isn't supposed to know anymore than the average low information voter.

  • DAY on November 16, 2011 1:02 PM:

    I see the Peter Principle is still working. . .

  • martin on November 16, 2011 1:06 PM:

    Iím left with the impression that Thomas Friedman is complaining about President Obama (a) just for the sake of complaining; and (b) without any meaningful understanding of the policies the president is already pursuing.

    So, what you're saying is Friedman is a Republican hack? Who Knew?

  • Th on November 16, 2011 1:09 PM:

    Clearly Mr. Friedman does not know about the internet so I decided to help him out by printing the summary and mailing it to him.
    Tom Friedman
    NY Times
    620 Eighth Ave.
    New York, NY 10018
    A sheet of paper, a little printer ink, an envelope and a stamp. Too bad the world has moved to fast for him, but we should help rather than ridicule.

  • dm on November 16, 2011 1:09 PM:

    I've found Friedman intolerable since his "suck on this" moment. I don't know why I read this post - it just infuriates me more.

  • SadOldVet on November 16, 2011 1:10 PM:

    Someone should send the Quote of the Week to Friedman...

    When you hear a republican talking about government in D.C. being broken, they are not complaining. They are bragging about what they have accomplished!

  • majun on November 16, 2011 1:11 PM:

    Part of the problem is that publishing reports, issuing fact-sheets and making speeches isn't the same thing as actually acting on the policy. People who criticize Obama are largely criticizing a perceived lack of action on the part of the WH. While a large part of that perception is based on the mind-set of a centrist that if things aren't working it is because of partisan gamesmanship on both sides, but there is an element of heightened expectations in the case of Obama too. What he says is less important than what he does for most people because he worked a miracle in getting a African American elected to the most powerful office in the world, so observers assume he can ordain any outcome he chooses if he really desires it. In that sense GOP obstructionism gets a pass from a lot of centrists because of a subliminal belief in Obama's power to pull off miracles. And don't kid yourself, he has, even since the election. As watered down as the ACA and Wall Street reform ended up, the fact that he got anything past the obstructionist Congress was nothing short of a miracle.

  • dj spellchecka on November 16, 2011 1:13 PM:

    since it was too hot and crowded in his flat to figure out obama's position, i don't know why the mustache of mediocrity didn't go outside and ask a cab driver...

  • cmdicely on November 16, 2011 1:34 PM:

    Part of the problem is that publishing reports, issuing fact-sheets and making speeches isn't the same thing as actually acting on the policy.

    Under the US Constitutional system of government, when a policy requires legislative action, that's pretty much exactly what acting on a policy by the Executive is.

    I mean, I suppose its theoretically possible that the President could stage an auto-coup and the dictate policy directly, but I think most people would probably find that means of advancing policy rather undesirable even if they supported the substantive policy itself.

  • ceilidh on November 16, 2011 1:35 PM:

    The guy is flat out lazy and is nothing more than a slightly more leftish version of David Brooks. Popular social science and conventional wisdom are his stock in trade. Research, even of the most basic sort, is beyond his mental capacity. All he's got on top of his shoulders is an ego; there's no room for a funtional brain.

  • jjm on November 16, 2011 1:36 PM:

    Good one, @SadOldVet!

    Friedman's always been 'thick' -- I recall his boosterism for the Iraq invasion. I understand he's married into wealth--i.e., he's a 1%er. In short, he cannot afford really to be a 'centrist'--he has to come down on the side of the wealthy over the rest, while smarmily claiming 'the middle of the road' position.

    I also heartily agree with @majun, "GOP obstructionism gets a pass from a lot of centrists because of a subliminal belief in Obama's power to pull off miracles. And don't kid yourself, he has, even since the election. As watered down as the ACA and Wall Street reform ended up, the fact that he got anything past the obstructionist Congress was nothing short of a miracle."

  • Just a guy on November 16, 2011 2:01 PM:

    Friedman's been living in his head since his last Pulitzer. If you're not an NYC Iraqi cab driver whose opinion he's soliciting for the purposes of making sweeping pronouncements about the new direction of civilization, you're just not on his radar.

  • Bluecrab on November 16, 2011 2:01 PM:

    It's simple. To apply Bruce Bartlett's remark about Rick Perry, Thomas Friedman is an idiot.

    The fact that he maintains a high-profile job at the NYT speaks volumes about the abysmal quality of our mainstream media.

  • H.H. McCool on November 16, 2011 2:40 PM:

    "I’m left with the impression that Thomas Friedman is complaining about President Obama (a) just for the sake of complaining; and (b) without any meaningful understanding of the policies the president is already pursuing."

    I agree with Martin. How about: (c)He's being paid by the Republican noise machine to do it.

  • T2 on November 16, 2011 2:58 PM:

    it would be quicker and more precise just to call Friedman what he is: a liar

  • Ron Byers on November 16, 2011 3:08 PM:

    Broder died. Somebody has to fill his niche.

  • square1 on November 16, 2011 3:43 PM:

    Tom Friedman is an idiot.

    That being said, there is a reason why people who are in the business of communication stress the importance of repetition in messaging: Because people do not always catch on right away.

    Imagine a parallel universe in which, for the past 2 1/2 years, whenever asked about his economic policies, the President prefaced every response with "Well, I'm focused on stimulus and job creation in the short term and debt reduction in the long term."

    Sure, it might start to sound like a broken record after a while, but you likely wouldn't have idiots like Friedman not understanding where you stand.

    Unfortunately, poor messaging is only part of the problem. One of the reasons that Obama has not relentlessly said "Well, I'm focused on stimulus and job creation in the short term and debt reduction in the long term." is because that wasn't an accurate description of his approach.

    Between the Summer of 2009 and the Summer of 2011, a more accurate phrase would have been "Well, I focused on stimulus and job creation and now I am focusing on debt reduction."

  • Mark on November 16, 2011 3:44 PM:

    Perhaps this is what Mitt meant when he said" Americans don't work too hard..."

    Clearly Mr. Friedman is, shall we say, "work adverse"

    Just saying...

  • biggerbox on November 16, 2011 4:33 PM:

    Well, Obama hasn't communicated his policies to all the taxi drivers, now, has he?

    How can anyone expect Friedman to understand something unless he hears it from his cab driver??

  • Samuel Knight on November 16, 2011 4:37 PM:

    There's a simpler reason why all these "centrist" (read establishment) commentators pretend that the President isn't offering centrist solutions. It's because establishment, corporate solutions that they advocated have been tried for the last 3 years - and failed miserably.

    They wanted DC and Financial technocrats to apply their wisdom - which just institutionalized failure. They wanted the President to work with the reasonable GOP - which ended up in pathetic must that didn't work.

    Friedman et al are just plain old lying to cover their pathetic record. More or less the same way he did with the Friedman units in Iraq. He, Bobo, Broder, Marcus, Cohen and the rest just play bait and switch.

  • nerd on November 16, 2011 9:11 PM:

    As interesting as Greg Sargent's explanation is, I think it gives Friedman too much credit. It implies premeditation.

    The old adage comes to mind: "Don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance." Like David Brooks, Friedman sees what he wants to see and conveniently doesn't see what doesn't agree with his notions.

  • deanarms on November 16, 2011 10:30 PM:

    Freidman has just become a bloviator.

  • Amy on November 17, 2011 5:19 PM:

    Friedman is supposed to be "centrist"?

  • philat on November 18, 2011 3:10 PM:

    I'm glad that someone has taken the time to delve into Friedman's commentary. For some time he seems to be on a downward glide path, propelled by his previous book sales and comments, and too busy with his latest book to do much thinking or checking on what he's writing.

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