Monday, November 2, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

I have genuine problems with President Obama in education, where it has taken him a long time to put his arms around the miscalculations within his department’s testing obsession.  I’m sure there are other well-meant decisions that can be criticized as too facile. 

Overall, though, we are watching how easily his opponents’ rhetoric goes over the top in a way that attracts media pile-on and can plant beliefs in the public’s head that time proves debatable or flat untrue.  As usual it is always easier in foreign matters we Americans know little about but domestic deceptions are also frequent.

It’s actually not new, long a part of the political game. But this generation ought to be growing up. The tendency to demean individuals with too broad a brush and then watch the mistaken pronouncements turn into universal folklore has gone on for ages, but these days are made both easier to spot and more prone to pack journalism from cable to social media, and by political opportunists who can throw big money into the trashing heap.

Carter turns out to be better president
than widespread myths suggest.
Let’s take the lingering myth that Jimmy Carter may have redeemed himself as an exemplary international citizen (Nobel Peace Prize 2002) but was a lousy president for four years. But look at how many of his achievements as president either bore fruit or have become accepted vision. That includes stuff the modern public doesn’t know he started, such as the Department of Energy and modernizing the role of the vice president. 

Reagan (and we could do a whole article on how he is mischaracterized by both political camps) removed the solar panels Carter installed at the White House. Does anyone today think that was a lame Carter idea? His plea to make energy conservation, price controls, new technology and maybe even an extra sweater a way to reduce US dependency on oil was painted as silly then. But today conservation is part of everybody’s plans. The Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt still holds and may even have set the model for Bill Clinton in the Balkans and Obama’s patience and stubbornness during setbacks from Libya to Afghanistan.

Whatever his genuine failures – as opposed to manufactured ones, which historians are more and more demonstrating was the case with the Iran hostage crisis -- he also appointed Paul Volker to the federal reserve and emphasized human rights in the face of what many demeaned as bad politics. If we want to talk about lousy presidents, can we discuss the guy who led us into the nation’s most misguided war and supervised runaway corporations that almost dragged us back into a Great Depression?

Putting Obama's words in perspective.
Obama, a savvy politician, is likewise not totally blameless, but he is being savaged for stray words not deeds. The public trusts his intelligence, maturity and optimism – so overall the public knows what he means even when he uses an overly broad sound-bite.  Take, “if you like your doctor you can keep him” under the Affordable Care Act.  That’s actually not what he said, usually it was more like “If you like your health plan you can keep it.”  He obviously didn’t know and should have how many lousy health plans there were out there.

But most people understood that was not a promise against any health storm, though opponents tried to make it seem a blanket statement. The observant knew Obama assumed the doctor you liked belonged to a good health plan that fit all the basic requirements of the ACA or soon would in common decency. He also should have anticipated that health providers would play a blame game, sending out warning letters denouncing “Obamacare” as they dropped patients without explaining how they could move to their own or rivals’ better coverage. Obama was seeking a memorable phrase that went too far -- but most people knew just what he meant. 

Yet for that blunder, Obama was rewarded with Pinocchio of the year or Pants on Fire for 2013 by the media referees. He was pretty much taken to the woodshed – and spanked harder as the launch of the ACA website went awry. It did blunder though seems remarkably smooth now. Commentators have only belatedly reported how the early website was overwhelmed in part by more Republican governors than expected who refused to help their states create a separate and probably cheaper exchange.

Today (except in Wisconsin) the states  are creeping aboard  the idea of a state exchange or accepting expanded Medicaid because the citizens do have friends in other states and realize how much easier finances could be for families. 

There are some ready fixes for the admittedly complicated ACA, but in the current atmosphere of political extremism the White House fears to bring them up because that “lie of the year” set a pattern for attack. 

Yet even the current media tea leaves do support Obama on this – in a few years the ACA will be as much a part of the American fabric as Social Security.  Moreover it is proving not a dictatorial takeover.  Some progressives wanted it to be totally government-run single payer while conservatives still think it is a government takeover though the complications stem largely from protecting the existing private health industry. Obama didn’t bolt to either extreme, which may explain why the large jury of consumers has become supportive despite the raging critics.

That may be why most GOP candidates are taking the ACA off the table when they return to their districts no matter how they voted in the House. 

The point is, the public needs to be cautious about historic truisms and Pinocchios. They don’t reflect what is really happening.  In a few years it is the media that may look proboscis obsessed.

That ought to bring us to “boots on the ground.” Two and even three years ago, Obama promised “no American boots in Syria” or something like that –in context it was about how he would not repeat the Bush error in Iraq of heading an invasion. 

He clearly didn’t mean a total embargo on military trained people inside these now unstable and even migratory borders of Syria and Iraq, but that he would not make the mistake of mass invasion of a country based on neo-con misunderstanding of the role of American exceptionalism in world affairs. In reality there have been hundreds of US military advisers there quietly for a year.

The media is partly right to worry about “mission creep” that once trapped us in Vietnam, but fewer than 50 advisers who may be drawn into combat hardly qualifies as mission creep, not when US planes are flying thousands of sorties a year. 

There is also humanity pressure on Obama to do more -- millions of Syrian civilians fleeing the conflict, hundreds capsizing in overloaded boats. The suffering is a goad to American involvement even though internationalists think nations closer to the disaster should be stepping up first.

In a vastly shifting situation Obama is taking measured approaches against Isis that are open to criticism. (Why not a fly zone?  Why such trust in coalition power after Libya? If the Saudis also hate Isis, where are they?) These are important questions for mature debate. But at least Obama is thinking them through not overreacting as Bush did and the critics are. He apparently won’t let the dead hand of past sound-bites control his thinking.

Yet now the media has exploded over his announcement of less than 50 advisers – maybe because it was two days before Halloween. They play an endless rotation of old videos of “no American combat boots” from past years and suggest that landing these military specialists in Syria with no timetable for extraction violated his promise. A story in one national newspaper was even headlined:  “Obama Vows to End Two Wars, Now Starts a Third” – without noticing he did stop two wars and never started a third.

The critics gain some validity since the White House downplayed the announcement and is playing semantics to insist these are not combat troops and then conceding they could wind up in combat in certain situations.

Yet the central mission of mixing armed strength with diplomatic maneuvers remains unchanged. This for the media is something like “keep your doctor,” an invention that may pass into popular history.

Ryan uses Obama blame to sidestep
his own wheeling-dealing.
We just got an attempt at more of the same false history from the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who went on “Meet the Press” to lie about Obama.  Ryan was actually trying to deflect media attention from the House of horrors he is now running. When he didn’t get the support he hoped for he grabbed some doubting right-wingers by promising he would keep comprehensive immigration reform on the shelf through the 2016 presidential election – a surefire way to make Latinos turn out for the Democrat.

Ryan’s excuse for more delay follows those old “make up your own history” canards.  Obama is “untrustworthy on this issue” because he’s secretly rewriting laws and putting himself above Congress, Ryan claims. But in truth Obama has acted in the open. He waited for years for the House to act, still wants them to and mainly as a goad used his executive authority to create limited entry for “dreamers” and their families. After losing the first round the idea is still moving through the appeals process. 

Despite all the claims that his youth represents change, Ryan wears a century old hat in political trickery. Many consider his economic thinking equally outdated.

He is counting on a duped public unaware of how the Obama policy on immigration happened – relying on ignorance and kneejerk distrust of any Democrat.  Is he expecting them to be fooled again when the group that refuses to act on immigration blames the other side for acting?  As Obama has constantly said, his executive order on immigration disappears the minute Congress passes a decent reform measure, which Ryan says he won’t allow, though the Senate in bipartisan fashion has done it.  Ironically, court action could make Ryan eat his own words.  While the executive order is temporarily blocked, it could be upheld while Obama is still president – and then all the blames falls on Ryan’s House.

It takes awhile for realities of history to refute the political myths so many people not only believe but also pass along. But perhaps the public is growing up. Certainly it should no longer accept the immediate hysteria for ratings that seems to have taken over both politicians and talking heads.  American optimism ought to mean believing that We the People are at the very least paying better attention.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 

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