NBC DC Bureau Chief Blames Obama's Troubled Year on 'Meanness and Mayhem' of Washington

December 28th, 2009 8:09 AM

NBC News Washington Bureau Chief (and former Newsweek editor) Mark Whitaker penned an evaluation of President Obama’s first year for Monday’s Washington Post that was heavy on the flattery and blamed everything that went wrong on the "unruly forces of cynicism, egotism, and self interest" in Washington, not to mention the capital’s "meanness and mayhem."

In this narrative, Obama is the white knight in a dark town, the idealist in a cynical swamp, and nothing he has done can be assailed as cynical or egotistical. Whitaker writes as if he’s trying to insinuate himself into Obama’s inner circle of advisers a la David Gergen.

Whitaker explained that he was rereading Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father to understand "why he has come across as competent but less magical than many Americans hoped." (Maybe Obama’s first year would look better if you changed the names to protect people’s privacy and blended people into composite characters, as Obama admitted he did in that nonfiction-challenged book.)

Obama’s difficult childhood apparently gave him all the advantages that made him a successful candidate, but that did not translate immediately into successful governing:

As a candidate for president, that disciplined, linear, conciliatory approach to life helped Barack Obama defeat the fractious campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It was exactly the right temperament to help Americans avert a fiscal and emotional meltdown in the early days of the financial crisis.

But as the French say, we all have the faults of our virtues. In President Obama's case, the highly organized defenses he developed as a result of his dysfunctional childhood may have left him ill-prepared to confront the more unruly forces of cynicism, egotism and self-interest that hold sway in Washington, on Wall Street and on the world stage.

On the economy, for instance, the president got right the analysis of what was needed -- a Keynesian infusion of federal dollars to get the system functioning again. But he got the theater of the stimulus wrong. He didn't anticipate how Democrats would exploit his haste to prime the pump to stuff the bill with pet liberal projects, thus giving Republicans an opening to brand Obama as a big-government radical.

This is bizarre. Passing a $787 billion "stimulus" bill doesn't make you a "big government radical." You're only a statist if the bill has pork in it?

Whitaker repeats this conceit. Obama failed to consider the egotism of the bankers. Obama failed to master the cynical leakers that made his careful deliberation on Afghanistan "look like dithering."  But Whitaker polishes the president's apple, writing he will learn from his mistakes of overestimating the nation's capital:

Yet, if this first year has sometimes made President Obama seem caught off-guard and frustrated by the meanness and mayhem of Washington, no one should assume that he won't learn from the experience.

The other theme running through "Dreams From My Father" is Obama's capacity for self-examination and self-improvement. He has applied that introspection to becoming a better person, a better writer and speaker, and a better politician. In Hawaii for the holidays, taking the long walks he so misses at the White House, Obama may well be reflecting on what he needs to do to be a more effective president.

Exercising power, he may now see, involves more than giving impressive speeches and seeking common ground. As Ronald Reagan showed, it requires a sense for majesty and mystery. As LBJ demonstrated, it demands a behind-the-scenes talent for flattery and intimidation. As JFK proved, it helps to have an ironic, rather than a self-righteous, view of human motives and vanity. And as that other product of a messy childhood, Bill Clinton, could tell you: It's not about bringing order to the world around you. It's about learning to love the madness of governing before you can master it.

Obama's surrounded by the "madness of governing" and is challenged to "bring order" to the chaos of the capital. You can sense that Whitaker and other media liberals really want Obama to start intimidating wavering Democrats and pounding harder on conservatives. They feel Obama didn't impose the socialist mandate they saw in the election returns.

This is the same Mark Whitaker who said Obama's blackness would give him greater "legitimacy" in the world and said even his arrogance was a strength as he "lifted himself up from the streets of Hawaii."

He also got huffy when media reporters asked him about NBC granting Obama four gushy hours with Brian Williams in prime time, insisting it was much better television than The Biggest Loser. If Obama failed in 2009, it certainly wasn't caused by the forces of adoration at NBC News.