On the Today Show this morning, Tom Brokaw insisted that President Obama needs to show the American people “leadership” in his jobs speech tomorrow night. Obama needs to show us that he’s “confident.” This is a common trope throughout the pundit class right now.
The President needs to be a leader! He needs to be confident! He needs to aim big! He needs to push hard!
And yes, it’s true in an abstract, obvious way. Human beings, let alone presidential ones, need to be self-assured to get almost anything done. Whether it’s washing the car or reestablishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, we do better when we have a plan and advance confidently in the direction of that dream [h/t Thoreau].
But otherwise, what the hell is this about? Americans don’t need a confident leader—they need a leader with some solid content. George W. Bush was confident to the point of recklessness, but that wasn’t any good for the country, our economy, his opinion polls, or the country.
And that’s probably what Brokaw (and the others) really means: Americans want to see that President Obama is aware of their problems and that he’s getting to work on fixing them. They want to believe that he’s going to respond.That’s fair enough…but
it’s also another piece of evidence that the mainstream media’s pursuit of “objectivity” is inadvertently leading them to biased coverage.
Here’s why: Imagine that Obama stands up tomorrow night and gives a speech with twice the rhetorical force of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. He somehow manages to simultaneously channel FDR, Cicero, and George Patton. He is a political tornado inside a hurricane inside a volcano. He finishes with a thundering passage about the noble equality at the heart of American political life that’s currently threatened by Congress’ intransigence.
What happens? The Democrats are enthralled. Strong men and women faint. Here he is! Our leftist savior! He’s a confident leader! He’s finally committed to a progressive solution to our jobs troubles!
Meanwhile, the GOP sits on their hands. They file out. Mitch McConnell gives a few interviews about how this president is ruining America. Fox “News” notices that the president coughed several times when he mentioned “our nation’s students.” Obviously he doesn’t believe in them.
And despite all of his confidence, despite the overwhelming leadership on display, the polls don’t really move. In the weeks to come, the GOP repeatedly threatens to block the president’s jobs agenda unless he agrees to provide additional tax credits for hovercraft purchases by American households grossing over $4 million in annual income. When he accedes on that, they insist that these job creators also need their own guest room in the White House living quarters—the “Koch Bedroom.” He resists, gives a few stirring press conferences, and eventually caves, so long as they change the name.
Confident leadership? Bah. Republicans aren’t intransigent because the president isn’t confident. They’re intransigent because they’re ideological absolutists with constituencies that demand purity. Jonathan Chait said it best a month ago:
The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science…every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama’s failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.
But what if he was super, super confident, Jon?