So let's say I'm Helene Cooper of the NYT. And let's say I have a great idea for an article -- the premise is that Obama knocks down pretend strawmen in his speeches just like Bush used to do (e.g., "Some have said...").
It would be a good idea for an article -- if it were true. But it's not, as about 15 minutes of Google and Lexis would show. But Cooper went ahead and wrote it anyway.
The difference between Bush and Obama's arguments is fairly simple -- Bush just made stuff up, while Obama's critics are actually making the critiques that Obama attributes to them. Somewhat hilariously, Cooper herself concedes this on several of the supposed examples of Obama's "strawman" arguments. She notes, for instance, that the criticisms Obama cites were made by real, living, breathing, non-straw-filled people like John Kyl, Anne Applebaum, Bill Kristol, and Jeffrey Kuhner.
There's a more detailed breakdown of the article below the fold:
Exhibit A of Cooper's article is that Obama is supposedly pretending that critics are saying he's bitten off more than he can chew. This is most prominent "strawman" that Cooper presents:
“There are those who say these plans are too ambitious, that we should be trying to do less, not more,” Mr. Obama told a town-hall-style meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on March 18. “Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore.”
Mr. Obama did not specify who, exactly, was saying America should ignore its challenges.
A couple of problems here. First, Obama didn't claim his critics were saying "ignore challenges." He claimed they criticized the way he approached challenges by trying to do too much.
But more to the point, Obama has been routinely criticized for trying to do too much. It's a common refrain, and it was particularly common around mid-March when he was making the comments Cooper cites. Here's a short sample:
David Broder, 3/15/09:
I was struck last week to read heartfelt pleas to Obama from my Post colleague David Ignatius and David Brooks of the New York Times to get his priorities straight and concentrate on the crucial task of rescuing banking, credit, housing and jobs.
These are people who deeply admire and respect Obama and wish him nothing but success. But, like some thoughtful congressional Democrats with whom I have spoken, they worry that he has bitten off more than he can chew.
David Brooks, 2/23/09:
Yet they [the Obama team] set off my Burkean alarm bells. I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they will do nothing well.
Matt Lauer, 3/11/09 (interviewing Romer - Lexis):
Let me just ask you about this idea that's been going around Washington and elsewhere over the last couple days that the president and the administration have simply bitten off more than they can chew in the early days of this administration.
Martin Bashir, 3/11/09 (Nightline):
And when we come back, President Barack Obama's full plate. Impressive multitasking or biting off more than he can chew?
John King, 3/15/09 (CNN - interviewing Cheney):
As you know, there's a debate in this town about whether the president is trying to do too much too fast. This is the "Sunday Ledger-Enquirer" in Columbus, Georgia. And a Knight Ridder story here about is Obama trying to do too much too fast.
I could probably have come up with another two dozen examples, but you get the point. The main strawman in her article turns out to be one of the most common and fundamental critiques of Obama in mid-March.
Moving on -- Cooper also claims that Obama cited strawman critiques of his March appearance on Leno:
Mr. Obama continued on the offensive against straw men that day in Los Angeles, pointing out that critics told him not to go on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on NBC because “I can’t handle that and the economy at the same time.”
Hilariously, Cooper then points out that John Kyl (in the Senate Republican leadership) made this precise critique. She tries to spin her way out of that, but it doesn't really work. But there are other critiques too:
Hannity, 3/18/09 (Lexis):
JERI THOMPSON [GOP Consultant]: Well, people thought that -- people thought that was Obama, too, and we haven't gotten that. He seems to be stunningly distracted. And I'm thrilled that he's gotten his basketball brackets in, and you know, he's on Jay Leno tonight. And I know he's...
HANNITY: When does he even work?
CA GOP Spokesperson, 3/18/09:
["H]ow is the regular Californian being helped out (by his policies)?" asked Hector Barajas, spokesman for the state Republican Party. "We just sent out 9,000 pink slips to California teachers - and he's about to go on the Jay Leno show? It just shows the lack of priorities of this president."
After finishing with the domestic policy strawmen, Cooper moves on and cites a few foreign policy strawman arguments. There's no need to tear this part of the article down because Cooper does it herself. For virtually every strawman she cites (e.g., criticisms of reaching out to Iran, eliminating nuclear weapons), she cites prominent pundits who actually made the very arguments Obama cited.
But her attempt to distinguish the Iranian outreach is almost embarrassingly absurd:
And White House officials pointed to columns in both The New York Times (William Kristol) and The Washington Times (Jeffrey Kuhner) that criticized Mr. Obama for trying engagement with Iran’s leaders. But by saying “Iranians,” instead of the more specific “Iran’s leaders,” Mr. Obama took that criticism a step further, before knocking it down.
Strawman!! I take it all back -- Obama's clearly just making crap up. I mean, who would ever refer to Iran's leaders as "Iranians"? It's nutty.
Google and Lexis are valuable tools -- they should be used. Also, whenever you have to rely heavily on Bill Safire for quotes, that's usually a bad sign.