Evidently, they are not. Old habits dying hard, President Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has complained rather glibly that “Republicans want people to turn on the television and see that nothing is working.” I daresay that, in a narrow sense at least, Gibbs is right. We are, after all, approaching an important election, and the more bad press that the president gets, the better it is for his opponents. But, inherent to Gibbs’s charge, was the implication that the widespread perception of presidential incompetence is axiomatically false. Such presumptions are widespread. Having run rather convincingly through the brief against the White House — listing among its recent mistakes the rollout of Obamacare, the failure to predict the rise of the Islamic State, scandals involving the IRS, the NSA, the Secret Service, and the Veterans Affairs, and the “child migrant crisis” on the southern border — Brian Beutler proposed rather curiously that certain “members of the media are enabling” the Right in its characterization of the Obama administration as the “gang that can’t shoot straight.” Instead, Beutler urged, “they should be anathematizing it.”
Really, one has to ask, “Why”? It is one thing to argue that the Republican party and the fourth estate are hyping non-stories, but quite another to present a list of genuinely abject failures and then to recommend to the press that it keep quiet about them. Might we not take Occam’s Razor to the matter and conclude simply that a good number of people really are nervous that the government can’t do anything right. Further, might we not take a moment to reflect why it is that so many people have no faith in Washington, D.C.? Perhaps the state really is terrible at reacting to crises — not just under Obama, but under other presidents, too. Perhaps, having watched the most domestically ambitious administration in half a century flail and collapse in ignominy, many Americans are a touch more aporetic today than they were back in 2008?
The distaste of the Beutlers, Sargents, and Gibbses of the world is, in some part, the product of rank partisanship. But it is also the result of the specific challenge that Democratic incompetence poses to those who wish the state to be an effective and pervasive force in our national life. When Republicans are in office, progressives are able to attribute the failures of the state to any number of perfidious forces: a lack of care by those in charge; inadequate interest in helping the afflicted; a deep-seated hostility to government that, inevitably, renders it ineffective; the inherent ineptitude of those outside of the chosen class; the presumably malevolent influence of big business; deliberate, ideologically driven underfunding; etc., etc. In the wake of conservative mistakes, moreover, reformers on the left are accorded the opportunity to promise that Democrats — by virtue of being the natural party of the state — will be able do better. When such a Democrat fails to do so, however, their champions are faced with a genuine problem. Presumably, their guy can’t be evil or indifferent or corrupt. What happened?