I’ve noticed a phrase that keeps cropping up in connection with articles about Obama: “defining moment.” My most recent sighting was in a Power Line post discussing Obama’s desperate (and manifestly false) efforts to walk away from his claim that ISIS was a “JV” team. There, Scott Johnson ends optimistically:
I think that Obama’s flagrant misjudgment in this case is a defining moment. It is a misjudgment consistent with his 2012 campaign themes in which he declared victory over al Qaeda (“decimated” and “on the run”). It indelibly marks Obama himself as the JV president and he therefore flails away against it.
Scott Johnson isn’t the only one looking for something that will be an epitaph for Obama’s presidency. A couple of weeks ago, a lot of people were pretty darned surprised when Obama, who has known about ISIS for at least a year, and should have known about it for much longer, publicly admitted that he had “no strategy” for dealing with it. Thomas Lifson thought this too would end up defining the presidency:
President Obama has now placed himself in an extraordinarily vulnerable position should ISIS act against the American people with its customary savagery. His arrogant dismissal of it with a sports metaphor, his admission of no strategy, and his track record of dithering and unseriousness combine to make his gaffe into what could become his political epitaph.
Johnson and Lifson are not alone in their search for that perfect gaffe or image or policy. On both the Left and the Right, pundits keeps looking at something Obama has done and opining that, for better or worse, it’s a “defining moment.” In April, after yet another Obama blunder (this one about entrepreneurs) Pat Sajak has helpfully explained what constitutes a negative “defining moment” in a presidency:
It’s as if President Obama climbed into a tank, put on his helmet, talked about how his foray into Cambodia was seared in his memory, looked at his watch, misspelled “potato” and pardoned Richard Nixon all in the same day. It’s fun to imagine the hand-wringing that must be going on within the White House as staffers try to figure out how to undo the damage their boss has done with his anti-entrepenurial riff. Defining moments in politics are strange beasts. Sometimes they’re only recognized in hindsight, while sometimes they throw the train off the tracks before a sentence has been completed. Sometimes their effect can be contained and minimized, while sometimes their effect on the political narrative mestastasizes. This one is very bad for the White House.
These defining moments take hold most devastatingly when they confirm what a large portion of the electorate already believes. Taken alone, it seems unfair that a single moment, an unguarded remark or a slip of the tongue can carry such weight. They’re often dismissed as “gotcha” moments, but when voters are able to nod and say, “I knew it,” these moments stick and do terrible damage. We have witnessed such a moment.
Defining moments, whether positive or negative, are definitely useful depending on whether one supports or opposes the president who gets defined. This time around, though, with this president, there will not be any defining moments.
What we forget when we think of the defining moments is the media’s essential role in promulgating them. The Jimmy Carter “killer rabbit” debacle perfectly exemplifies what I mean. Despite Carter’s Democrat creds, the media had tired of him by 1979. The economy was in the doldrums and the world seemed dangerous. The Iranian hostage crisis hadn’t happened yet, but Carter looked weak (something that subsequent events proved). When the “killer rabbit” story broke, the media was all too ready to humiliate him, especially because Teddy Kennedy was waiting in the wings:
For a president who had already weathered lusting after the Polish people, not to mention all the lust in his heart, this was one foolish moment too many.
As you may recall, the media also savaged Presidential Gerald Ford, an exceptionally athletic man, as a clumsy yahoo. When he did what everyone occasionally does — trip — it was elevated into an intellectual and moral failing, defining his presidency in the eyes of a post-Watergate public already jaded by politicians and their foibles.
Obama is different, though. The media absolutely refuses to follow up in any serious way when it comes to Obama’s gaffes and failures. Sure, papers will report on them in a small paragraph in a boring article in the back of the paper and TV outlets might mention them in passing, but there is no real coverage. Unlike the “killer rabbit” moment, which I distinctly remember showing up on the front page of the SF Chronicle, most American media consumers know nothing about ISIS = JV gaffes and lies, or “corpse-man” gaffes, or Hawaii=Asia gaffes, or “red line in Syria” gaffes, Benghazi spin, or even “If you like your insurance you can keep your insurance” lies. These things are strictly insider politics, red meat for the fanatics who follow every little thing. My sister, the quintessential low info consumer has never heard of any of these things unless I, a news nerd, expressly told her about them.
Conservatives can spin these moments as much as possible within the confines of the conservative blogosphere, but they’re not gaining traction and sticking in the larger public sphere. To the extent conservatives lack the all-encompassing national reach of the mainstream media, news stories that ought to be “defining moments” remain insider laundry lists. And no, Fox News alone is still insufficient. While other television news outlets are failing compared to Fox, the fact that the liberals own all of the other television news outlet; HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central; the major print news outlets; all of the major magazines, from sports to fashion to gossip to household hints; our public schools; and the majority of Hollywood’s top performers means that, while news junkies get Fox, all other low-info consumers . . . don’t.
All is not perfect for the media, though. While it’s experienced consistent success when it comes to quashing negative “defining moments” about Obama, it’s been unable to maintain any positive “defining moments.” Thus, while most Americans haven’t been repeatedly hit over the head with the Big Lie (“If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance”), they haven’t missed the fact that Obamacare has not performed as promised. Likewise, while they probably missed both the “red line” and the JV statements, they’re fully aware of ISIS’s marauding, and are no doubt wondering how this can be happening under Obama’s reign of goodness and light. Voters are getting the big picture (which is reflected in Obama’s collapsing poll numbers), but they’re missing the epitaphs.
Given voters’ increasing disenchantment with Obama, does it matter then that there is no sticky defining moment that becomes a shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the administration? I think it does. Without that sticky imagery, every Obama failing must be defined and disseminated from the ground up. An analogy would be 50 First Dates, the movie in which Drew Barrymore, after a car accident, wakes up every day remembering only the events leading up to the car accident, with no memory of any subsequent events. It’s a cute conceit for a movie, but a miserable way to run a country.