The media is still playing up Mitt Romney’s criticism of the London Olympics–even ahead of today’s big economic news–and now they’re playing up his attempt to walk it back. (The UK Daily Mail is calling Romney’s change of heart a “humiliating U-turn”–which, perhaps, it is.) But Barack Obama, too, had his share of gaffes abroad when running for president–and several humiliating walkbacks. The difference is that Obama had the media on his side to cover up his mistakes and present them as evidence of his readiness for the job.
Take, for example, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, as the Summer Olympics began in Beijing. Candidate Obama made a statement that appeared weak and wishy-washy, placing equal blame on both sides and calling for “direct talks” among “all sides,” as well as the involvement of the United Nations.
Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, made a stronger–and far more effective–statement, placing blame for the crisis where it belonged, and defending Georgia, a potential NATO ally: “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.” His response was cheered by crowds in Tbilisi and by former Soviet states under Russian pressure.
The Obama campaign suddenly realized that it had made a mistake. Obama’s response looked hopelessly naive, reflecting the doubts that Hillary Clinton had cast during the Democratic primary. So Candidate Obama emerged from his beach house in Hawaii to offer a do-over that imitated the decisive language of his more experienced rival. His long statement, filled with tangential details intended to display his familiarity with the facts of the region, singled out Russia for criticism and called for the U.S. to “speak out strongly against this aggression.”
A few journalists noted that Obama’s second statement was, in effect, an admission of error in his first, touchy-feely pronouncement. But Obama’s allies in the mainstream media–such as Ben Smith, then of Politico–did their best to minimize the walkback, noting that his second statement “brings him into line with the hardening international stance.” Instead of mocking Obama for playing catch-up with McCain, Smith tried to downplay differences between the candidates: “Both McCain and Obama are reiterating past positions here,” he noted parenthetically, putting down any divergence to “tone” rather than substance or experience.
Unlike Obama’s first statement on Georgia, which suggested both ignorance and a lack of principle, Romney’s critical comments on the Olympics, though undiplomatic, were accurate. Furthermore, Obama’s mistake dealt with a fundamental matter of national security; Romney’s was harmless. But the media is showing far more interest in Romney’s gaffe–and the admission implied in his walkback–than they ever showed in candidate Obama’s Georgia walkback, or any of the many others he made in 2008: his promise (immediately reversed) to stand for a united Jerusalem; his announcement that he was willing to invade Pakistan, and so forth.
Whatever criticism Romney deserves for his comments on the Olympics, we are learning far more about the media’s continued loyalty to Obama than about his challenger’s foreign policy credentials.