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Memo to Obama: Sooner or Later Reality Matters
By: Bernie GoldbergDecember 31, 2013

Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma who has more sense than most of his colleagues in Washington, has a guest column in the Wall Street Journal running under the headline, “The Year Washington Fled Reality.”

Here’s his first sentence:  “The past year may go down not only as the least productive ever in Washington but as one of the worst for the republic.”  I can think of a few years that were worse – the years of the Civil War, the Depression Years, the Vietnam and Watergate years immediately come to mind.  But we get the senator’s point.

And there is one part of his column that I think truly captures the sorry state of how business was conducted in 2013 by one particular charismatic politician in Washington. Here’s what Senator Coburn writes:

“The culture that Mr. Obama campaigned against, the old kind of politics, teaches politicians that repetition and ‘message discipline’ — never straying from using the same slogans and talking points — can create reality, regardless of the facts. Message discipline works if the goal is to win an election or achieve a short-term political goal. But saying that something is true doesn’t make it so. When a misleading message ultimately clashes with reality, the result is dissonance and conflict. In a republic, deception is destructive. Without truth there can be no trust. Without trust there can be no consent. And without consent we invite paralysis, if not chaos.”

He’s right, of course.  President Obama misled us, at best – and lied to us at worst, in order to get his healthcare reform through Congress.  Mr. Obama is a politician who too often confuses campaigning with governing – he’s very good at the former, not so much the latter.  You get the impression he says what he has to say to win over the crowd — because he’s confident he can. But, as Senator Coburn says, without truth there can be no trust.  So now more Americans distrust Mr. Obama than at any time in his presidency. His deception got his signature piece of legislation through Congress, but he’s paying a price for his “success.”

But President Obama isn’t the only one guilty of “message discipline” – he’s not the only one who seldom strays from slogans and talking points.  This is the bane of opinion pundits and commentators too, especially on cable TV and talk radio.

This is how it works:  liberals don’t like conservatives, so they find anything and everything to ridicule the enemy, to marginalize and delegitimize the other side, while ignoring their own team’s mistakes.  Conservatives are no better.  If President Obama picks his nose on the golf course, it gets the same attention on talk radio and on some conservative TV shows as if he personally dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Neither side can say a good word about the other side.  It’s against the rules.  It’s giving aid and comfort to the enemy. No, talk radio and cable TV didn’t create the polarization that is tearing this country apart. But for all the good they do – highlighting news that old media tend to play down, giving voice to people who would have no voice in the so-called mainstream media – opinion radio and TV sure made things worse.  They speeded up the process of division.  So now, conservatives only want to hear what other conservatives have to say and liberals only want to hear liberals.  Neither side really wants to hear opinions that might make them re-think their entrenched views.  All we want today is to nod along as someone on radio or TV validates our firmly held biases.  It’s “safe” inside the echo chamber.

And the non-stop bashing of the other side, to use Senator Coburn’s words, creates “dissonance and conflict.” It undermines trust. It’s destructive. That may be good for business – and it is! — but it’s not good for America.

President Obama, in 2014, needs to learn the difference between campaigning and governing.  It won’t be easy for him.  Charisma – especially when deployed to win over “low information” Americans may work for a while.  But sooner or later reality matters.  And then, all the charisma in the world won’t save a smooth politician who has lost the trust of the people who once adored him.

As for the pundits who think because they have a national audience they must have something important to say: They need to shut up every now and just listen.  They might learn something. And that goes for this humble pundit too.

Happy New Year to everyone.

Bernie Goldberg
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