Detecting media bias is often an exercise in contrasting two analogous events to see how the media worked to write the narrative in the public's imagination. We at NewsBusters have already looked at how the media love the party atmosphere of the Obama inaugurals but groused at the expense of Bush's second inaugural, for example.
So it's instructive to see how Washington Post veteran journalist Dan Balz greeted President Obama's entry into his second term with how he looked at the dawn of President George W. Bush's second term. "[T]his Inauguration Day comes at a time when there is far greater realism about whether the president, or perhaps any leader, can transcend political divisions and unite the country," Balz noted in his front-page January 21 analysis piece, "This time, the idea of a new beginning seems optimistic."
"The question is whether he can productively manage those divisions to accomplish what needs to be done," Balz added.
At the very least, Balz noted, Obama "now appears to be operating with a clear sense of the coalition that has elected him twice, of who is behind him and who is not and may never be," going on to add that (emphases mine):
His first four years showed that there are parts of Red America he can never win over. If his gun-control measures alienate some parts of the country and some voters, they are likely to be popular with the majority coalition that has carried the past two presidential elections for the Democrats.
He believes that he has public opinion on his side in some of these new fights and intends to try to use it as leverage to pressure Republicans. He has turned to campaign-style events in recent weeks to push his agenda. He has vowed to spend more time outside of Washington rallying the public.
For Balz, the issue for Obama is how to assert his agenda and push it through Congress, particularly through a House held by conservative Republicans, while building on public opinion and perhaps peeling off the requisite number of Republican defectors to pass his policies. At no point is the president nor Senate Democrats held to blame for the partisanship in Washington.
But eight years ago, as President Bush took office, Balz had a far different tone in his January 20, 2005 front page piece, "Looking to Apply Lessons Learned," which focused on areas in which President Bush was supposed to grow in office in his next term by reaching out to Democrats whom he and his congressional allies defeated in the 2012 general election (emphases mine):
President Bush is a politician with large ambitions and few doubts, someone not easily given to mea culpas. But in the run-up to today's inauguration, he has at least hinted at some of the lessons learned in office. From his relations with Democrats in Congress to his approach to the rest of the world, Bush has suggested he will try to strike a different tone -- without abandoning principles or policies.
Balancing those objectives could be one of the biggest challenges in a second term already facing difficult problems. His agenda includes turning Iraq into a success story, repairing relations with other nations, tackling the restructuring of Social Security and the tax code, and revising immigration policy. The question is whether he can aggressively pursue that agenda and still achieve a more accommodating climate here and abroad.
Washington, "is tough," he said. "It's different from Austin. . . . I'm mindful of my rhetoric when it comes to the Democrats. I've really checked back." Bush paused to acknowledge he had not checked his rhetoric during the campaign, calling it a matter of political survival. He continued: "I think all of us, all of us, have got to work to set the right kind of tone. I will continue to do so."
Bush's Democratic critics will dismiss those statements as cosmetic at best, disingenuous at worst. They say it was Bush who did not make good on his 2000 campaign pledge to change the tone in Washington with polarizing policies and scorched-earth campaigns. No amount of soothing rhetoric, they argue, can overcome an ideologically driven agenda at home or unilateralist impulses abroad.
There is deep suspicion on both sides of the relationship, with White House officials saying they have consistently tried to avoid inflammatory rhetoric without getting any credit from Democrats, who say the administration remains so ideologically driven that it diminishes any chance of real cooperation.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who broke ranks with many in his party to support all three of Bush's tax cuts, said Bush must be more flexible. "If he is able to reach out to Democrats in the development of policy rather than having his staff present it as a take-it-or-leave-it basis, it would foster more support," he said. "Last term it seemed like a lot of the time his policy people would work with me and his political people would work on me."
A White House official said Bush would try to encourage cooperation. Asked how, he replied: "You say there's a seat at the table if you want to help write the bill."
Neither side thinks the relationship can be repaired easily, but there are signs that Bush may try to start anew with some Democrats. During his first term, he had a strained relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus. Bush met with the caucus in his first two weeks as president, but the relationship deteriorated quickly.
At no point in his January 20, 2005 story did Balz suggest that there were some parts of "Blue America" that Bush just couldn't win over and that he just had to soldier on and assertively promote his agenda to get things done. In the January 2005 piece, Balz also failed to see congressional Democrats as having an obligation to move in President Bush's' direction. You will recall that in the 2004 general election, House Republicans added three seats to their majority and Senate Republicans added four to cushion their hold of the upper chamber.