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A President Popular by Default

President Barack Obama is unaccountably popular at the moment, with a bare majority of Americans expressing approval of him. That’s hardly Mount Rushmore stuff, and far short of the falling oceans and fundamental transformations he promised during the peak of his popularity during that first crazy presidential campaign of his, but for now it’s enough to make him the most popular politician in America. The only way we can account for it is the year’s even crazier election.
It’s not just that both of his major party would-be successors are wildly unpopular, with landslide majorities of Americans quite reasonably finding both dishonest and altogether unfit for the office, but also the way that their daily groan-inducing scandals keep the president contentedly out of the news altogether. Those obsessive sorts of news readers who dive beyond the front page headlines and delve deep into the rest of it are vaguely aware that the president recently paid a huge ransom to the Iranian theo-thug-ocracy for some hostages and then offered a preposterous explanation about why he didn’t, that Milwaukee has lately been burning from flames fanned by the “Black Lives Moment” the president has encouraged, that much of south Louisiana is underwater and the main form of federal assistance has been a memo sternly warning that rescue efforts not be racially discriminatory, and that the president has been playing golf and living it up with a bunch of rich white people on a lavishly-funded vacation to Martha’s Vineyard the whole time, but the rest of the country has been pleasantly preoccupied with America’s rout at the the Olympics and the latest gaffes from the president’s would-be successors.
We can recall past times when shady hostage deals went down with the Iranian theo-thug-ocracy and American inner cities burned and south Louisiana was underwater, and how it used to be a much bigger deal, but then again all that happened during slower news cycles and Republican administrations. During a slow news cycle in a Republican administration a president golfing and living it up with a bunch of rich white people while the rest of the nation churns along uneasily would be a major scandal, but with a Democratic administration and the happy distraction of a can’t-look-away-train-wreck of a presidential election such scandals suddenly become quibbles. The desultory state of the economy and that awful labor force participation rate that obscures the more happy-face unemployment numbers, the mounting debt that sustains the slow pace, the politicization of the Justice Department that allows the Democratic nominee to be running in the first place, the generally unsettled state of world, as well as the general cultural decline made apparent by the current sorry choices of presidential nominees, are all as easily relegated to the inner pages of your increasingly scant newspaper.
Any old well-funded Republican should be able to make something of it, but this year the nominee isn’t any old well-funded Republican but rather the not-quite-self-funding-self-described billionaire Donald J. Trump, and he hasn’t seized the opportunities. The self-described deal-making-artisan made a strong case against the ransom for hostages arrangement, but the press was able to focus on what he had later had to admit was a bogus claim that he’d seen secret video footage of the payment. He made a persuasive argument that the past many decades of Democratic machine politics have caused the plight of the recently burning inner cities, but his attempts to bolster his current 1 or 2 percent favorables among black Americans were rather clumsily phrased in the pitch that they’re all poor and uneducated and therefore have nothing to lose by voting for him, along with the rather fanciful even-by-Trump-standards boast that after four years in office he’d win 95 percent black vote. Trump showed up in Louisiana for a meaningless photo-op several days before the vacationing Obama plans to do the same, but unless starts spending some serious ad buy money we doubt it will do him the same good that it once did Obama when a Republican administration was in charge while south Louisiana was underwater.
Thus far the supposedly boundlessly wealthy Trump has been quite parsimonious about ad buys, and instead continues to rely on all the “free media” that has suddenly turned so hostile ever since he wrapped up the Republican nomination, not to mention all those gaffes, and yet he’s still within shouting distance in the national polls if not so much the states that add up to an electoral majority. That’s because a clear majority of Americans understand that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is dishonest and unfit for office, and we also take heart that a near-majority of them also think little of the current president. That so few of us have any regard for our next president, no matter how it turns out, is also heartening in an unaccountable way.

— Bud Norman

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The Importance of Impertinent Questions

A reporter asked a tough question at a presidential news conference Wednesday, and it was one of the big stories of the day. Not the continued imprisonment of American hostages by our new best friends in Iran that prompted the question, nor the president’s newsworthy indignant non-response, but just the fact that a reporter had asked a tough question at a presidential news conference. This might seem odd, given all that’s going on the world, but by now there’s a certain dog-bites-man aspect to riots in Greece and Chinese stock market slides and American capitulations to nutcase regimes, while presidential news conferences are rare and tough questions being asked there even rarer.
The question was posed by Major Garrett, of all people, from CBS News, of all places, so that makes it all the more notable. After some gloating by the president about his newly-made deal with the government of Iran, Garrett asked: “Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges according to your administration and one whereabouts unknown. Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content with all the fanfare around this deal to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?” In non-response, the president offered a widely reported glare and replied, “I’ve got to give you credit for how you craft these questions. The notion that I’m content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that’s — that’s nonsense, and you should know better.”
How Garrett should have known better was not explained in the president’s remarks, given the president’s apparent contentment with the deal, and that from the outset of his give-away-the-store negotiations he had agreed not to raise any “non-nuclear issues” such as the four Americans languishing in Iranian jails, and that the latest incidents in Iran’s long history of American hostage-taking would have once again gone entirely unmentioned if not for the impertinent question. Still, the rest of the assembled press corps, who took up the rest of the time asking tossing softballs and refusing to play defense against the presidential’s questionable assertions about his gloating, were quite shocked by the lese majeste of the query, and the president’s dwindling cadre of supports immediately took to Twitter and other social media to express their indignation.
The indignant panelists on CNN even spent a couple of hours of airtime that could have been devoted to the myriad flaws in the president’s deal or the rioting in Greece or the scary economic developments in China with much huffing and puffing about such flagrant disrespect for a president. Those panelists cited their long experience of covering presidential press conferences, but apparently it doesn’t stretch back far enough to recall the rough treatment that George W. Bush and other previous presidents used to get it. The second Bush considered it a good press conference when he didn’t have to dodge any shoes being thrown at him, or endure the cheerleading for the shoe-thrower from the rest of the press corps, and even the Democratic presidents of our recollection all were subjected to more pointed questions.
Perhaps Garrett’s question was crafted to imply a certain presidential insouciance about the hostage Americans, and perhaps we should more generously assume that the president does truly care about those Americans but just not enough to let it interfere with his capitulation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the sake of his legacy, but we’re glad it was asked nonetheless, and we’re pleased that Garrett thus far isn’t backing down to the criticism. That hostage-taking remains a part of Iran’s as defiant-as-ever anti-western crusade, and that the deal the president is gloating about does nothing to deter that country’s constant global trouble-making and instead provides them with hundreds of billions of dollars to do more of it, deserves some attention, and should raise doubts about the rest of it. A better press corps would have followed up on that question, but the one we’ve got was more offended that one of their own would be so gauche as the ask a rude question of this particular president.

— Bud Norman