As he moved into his office as Barack Obama’s budget director in 2010, Jack Lew took down a portrait of Alexander Hamilton—“the father of American finance,” the Washington Post (1/21/13) told readers—and “put up paintings of New York City by jobless artists who had been hired into the New Deal’s public works program.”
It was, the Post admitted, a “small gesture”—but one that friends say “speaks volumes” about Lew’s mindset. What really speaks volumes is that the Post in 2013 would offer this three-year-old office-decor anecdote as evidence that, as the headline put it, “Nominee to Lead Treasury Values Social Safety Net.” It indicates how far media were willing to stretch to make the case that the Obama administration was shifting to the left as its second term got underway.
Figures on the right expressed particular alarm about this supposed shift. Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (1/24/13) reacted to Obama’s inaugural address as if it had simply confirmed what he’d known all along. “The revolution is back,” he declared, Obama’s “reactionary liberalism” more proof that the president is “the apostle of the ever-expanding state,” the “Reagan of the left.”
While such grumbling on the right is predictable, centrist pundits and Beltway reporters saw things moving leftward too. “The president called for an ambitious liberal agenda in his inaugural address yesterday,” said CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley (1/22/13). On the PBS NewsHour (1/22/13), Gwen Ifill said, “President Obama’s forceful new focus on progressive ideals echoed across the nation on the day after the inauguration.” The headline across the front page of the New York Times (1/22/13) read, “Obama Offers Liberal Vision.”
But was it really so? In terms of policy ideas and White House nominations in various areas, it is hard to see a significant ideological shift at all.
Take Lew’s move to Treasury. Many paragraphs after divining a political message from his office decorations, the Post explained that the safety net protector also advocates cutting the safety net:
Although opposed to significant changes in low-income programs, Lew has been willing to put on the table other Democratic sacred cows, including Medicare and Social Security. In the context of a broad deficit-reduction deal, Lew, like Obama, has been in favor of trading a cut in Social Security benefits and a gradual increase in the Medicare eligibility age for substantial tax hikes on the wealthy.
The choice of Lew was evidence, according to Washington Post curmudgeon Robert Samuelson (1/14/13), that Obama “doesn’t seem to care much” about what the “business and financial community” thinks. And on the PBS NewsHour (1/11/13), David Brooks declared, “I really think it would have been useful to have somebody from the business community.”
Such judgments ignore the fact that Lew was an executive at Citigroup from 2006–08, during the catastrophic financial collapse. As Democracy Now! (1/11/13) pointed out, Lew was also an advocate of Clinton-era financial deregulation policies. As the show’s guest, University of Missouri-Kansas City professor William Black, argued, “On financial matters, Jack Lew has been a failure of pretty epic proportions, and he gets promoted precisely because he is willing to be a failure and is so useful to Wall Street interests.”
Lew wasn’t the only nominee to inspire such startling gaps between media pronouncement and reality. Somehow Obama’s nomination of Republican Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon was seen as a bold shift to the left. NBC Nightly News (1/6/13) misleadingly referred to Hagel as “the independent-minded Republican [who] frequently clashed with members of his own party, opposing the Iraq war.” Actually, Hagel voted for the war; his criticism came later, when the occupation did not go as smoothly as the U.S. government would have liked.
The Washington Post editorial page (12/18/12) was concerned that “Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term.” They didn’t mean that as a compliment. And a New York Times profile (1/6/13) called Hagel a “politician whose service in Vietnam gave him a lifelong skepticism about the commitment of American lives in overseas conflicts.”
But Hagel’s actual record does not line up with the caricatures put forth by his critics (and supporters) in the media—which made it seem like he was more a Dennis Kucinich–style antiwar crusader than a politician who has generally been supportive of a number of U.S. military adventures. Hagel voted to commit U.S. troops in conflicts in Serbia and Afghanistan as well as Iraq (FAIR Blog, 1/7/13).
It’s hard to argue that Obama’s inaugural speech signified a serious change in any policy area. On global warming, Obama restated that “we will respond to the threat of climate change,” but he didn’t say how—other than noting that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.” And most accounts failed to mention the administration’s pending decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would open Canadian tar sands to the world oil market—a choice that will have a bigger impact on climate change than any speech, no matter how prominent.
On immigration, Obama declared:
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
Hearing that, one would have little clue that his first-term immigration policy was characterized by a record-breaking deportation rate of nearly 400,000 per year (Colorlines, 10/17/12)—a fact mentioned by few reporters covering the address.
While the corporate media consensus seemed to stress Obama’s renewed liberalism, a few more skeptical takes could be found. In a Washington Post op-ed (1/24/13), center-right Democrat Kenneth Baer argued that, judging from the media reaction, “you might have thought that it was George McGovern who took the oath of office.” He observed that defending overwhelmingly popular programs like Social Security hardly seemed like an unusually left-wing move. To Baer, Obama’s words could only sound that way because of the stark contrast with the prevailing Republican rhetoric, which has shifted so overwhelmingly to the right.
Time’s Joe Klein (2/4/13) made a similar point when he noted that Fox News host Chris Wallace called the inaugural an “unyielding, uncompromising espousal of a liberal agenda.” Klein retorted by saying this “would be true if we were living in 1961. But not so much now, unless you consider the preservation of Social Security and Medicare and the acknowledgment of civil rights as a starkly liberal vision.”
Klein could just as easily have called out the Washington Post (1/24/13) or New York Times (1/28/13), which reported that Obama has a “starkly liberal second-term agenda” and “a starkly liberal vision for his second term,” respectively.
In the world the establishment press belongs to, policy debates run from the middle of the political spectrum to the far right. Little if anything Obama is suggesting represents a fundamental challenge to that status quo; rather, his agenda represents perhaps a modestly liberal spin on decidedly conventional policies. Inside the corporate media bubble, that’s apparently a bold move to the left.