Commentary: Coverage of Obama may take harder edge in second term

The Kansas City StarMarch 15, 2013 

Second terms have a habit of being unkind to presidents and one wonders whether the pattern will apply to Barack Obama, whose treatment by the press has been unusually respectful, to put it mildly.

But that may be changing, and a big clue is how the sequester fight between Obama and the GOP has played out so far.

In recent days, the administration has drawn jeers for exaggerating the potential effect of the sequester, which requires a 5 percent cut in discretionary spending.

Across-the-board spending cuts are a bad way to do business and may well result in significant cost to the economy and jobs. But in the annals of overreach, the White House performance was right up there. Cabinet secretaries trooped before the press to predict long lines at airports or a nation “less safe” because of furloughed Border Patrol agents.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan had to retract a claim that some schools were already handing out “pink slips” because of the mandated spending cuts. Obama wrongly claimed Capitol janitors would get a pay cut. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrongly claimed airport security lines had grown by 200 percent.

The administration’s hyperbole led to a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a woman astronaut intoned, “Thanks to the budget cuts, our space helmets will no longer have glass. So when we go out in space, we’ll have to hold our breath.”

Then The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward stirred the pot with an op-ed contradicting the White House line that the sequester had been a GOP idea.

Citing reporting he did for his book, “The Price of Politics,” Woodward also said Obama’s demand for more revenue wasn’t part of the deal and amounted to “moving the goal posts.”

But that wasn’t all. Before his article appeared, Woodward called White House aide Gene Sperling to provide a heads up — and Sperling responded angrily.

Woodward told Politico that Sperling “yelled” at him for about 30 minutes.

Sperling sent Woodward an email offering an apology, but he added that Woodward would “regret” his statement about Obama moving the goalposts on the sequester deal — a remark Woodward called a “veiled threat.”

Politico published the email exchange, which seemed surprisingly polite given the controversy. Some in the media accused Woodward of overreacting. But of course we don’t know what Sperling said in that 30-minute rant.

This may seem like so much inside baseball, but it suggests the iceberg’s tip of something deeper — a hyper-sensitive White House and a frustrated press. Woodward’s decision to call foul on the White House has opened the door for others to take their own shots. Indeed, Ron Fournier of National Journal chimed in with an account of “abusive language” from an unnamed White House aide, who also told Fournier he would have cause to regret certain assertions.

Obama’s once-worshipful press may be on the edge of a harder line and a less-forgiving narrative. The media may be biased — as press critic Howard Kurtz noted at CNN, “there is little question that they have a social and cultural outlook that leans to the left” — but reporters love a winner and detest a loser.

So far, Obama has been able to avoid much of the accountability that normally falls to the chief executive. Even while bashing the White House, Fournier was careful to add: “This can’t be what Obama wants.” But if Obama’s clumsy management of the sequester is a sign of things to come in the second term, reporters may not be as willing to cut him as much slack — boosting the odds that Obama, too, may become mired in the second-term curse.

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