Low-Information Columnists Shouldn't Throw Stones

President Obama, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan charges, runs a White House devoid of deep knowledge while fostering an impression of intellectual rigor. This is an ironic argument for Noonan to make.

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President Obama, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan charges, runs a White House devoid of deep knowledge while fostering an impression of intellectual rigor. This is a deeply ironic argument for Noonan to make, particularly in the way she makes it.

"I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful [with the Obamacare roll-out] is because he sort of lives in words," Noonan writes of Obama. And if that doesn't immediately strikes you as hilariously hypocritical, a reminder of Noonan's work. Last year, her most notable piece was the one on the Monday before Election Day, in which she declared that "something old is roaring back" — namely, an energized Republican base. Noonan's "data point" on that was the number of lawn signs she saw in Ohio and Florida — a famously misleading metric, but she went with it. "Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s guessing," she wrote, but that wasn't true: Nate Silver knew something, that poll aggregates showed it was almost certain that Obama would win, including in Ohio and Florida. But Noonan preferred the emotion and guesswork that bolstered her case to the data points that didn't.

In this new column, her guesses focus on the nature of the Obama White House:

For four years I have been told, by those who’ve worked in the administration and those who’ve visited it as volunteers or contractors, that the Obama White House isn’t organized. It’s just full of chatter. … People speak airily, without point. They scroll down, see a call that has to be returned, pop out and then in again.

It does not sound like a professional operation. And this is both typical of White Houses and yet on some level extreme.

She blames this in part on age:

From what I have seen the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but not read the book. They act bright, they know the reference, they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads.

You know how those young people are with their social media:

It’s as if history isn’t real to them. They run around tweeting, all of them, even those in substantial positions. “Darfur government inadequate. Genocide unacceptable.” They share their feelings – that happens to be one of the things they seem to think is real, what they feel. “Unjust treatment of women—scourge that hurts my heart.” This is the dialogue to the movies in their heads.

And this attitude, she believes, is the true nature of the Obama presidency, pretending to be smart while screwing things up. "Low-Information Leadership," the column is called, appropriating the now-in-vogue term "low-information" from the dog-whistle expression "low-information voter," a favorite theme of Rush Limbaugh's, which generally means "poor people."

But look what Noonan bases this all on: precisely the sort of unsubstantiated anecdotalism that she should have learned not to trust the day after publishing that column in 2012. "It does not sound like a professional operation," this straw man representation of the executive branch Noonan created from things she has been told. "And this is both typical of White Houses and yet on some level extreme." What is? These anecdotes that came from people who, it is very safe to assume, don't like the Obama administration? And this poorly-defined and maybe-not-real behavior is extreme in the case of Obama? Just imagine what would happen if we allowed the sort of people who are guided by emotion instruct us on what to do. Peggy Noonan would clearly hate that.

All of this is in service to Noonan's attempt to undermine Obama's leadership on Obamacare. Obama "never had to stock a store ... never had to run anything, but it may be more important that he never worked for the guy who had to run something," she writes. The president "never had to meet a payroll, never knew that stress" — which is essential for knowing the right course of action. We're still trying to figure out which companies Peggy Noonan ran while starting her media career and teaching journalism.

The best part of Noonan's piece, though, is the part she leads with. Here is why Obamacare is bad:

People have seen their prices go up, their choices narrow. They have lost coverage. They have lost the comfort of keeping the doctor who knows them and knows they tend to downplay problems and not complain of pain, and so doing more tests might be in order, or tend to be hypochondriacal and probably don’t need an echocardiogram, or at least not a third one this year.

The Republican Party's strategy to undermine the health policy is explicitly to collect anecdotes that can be used to undermine the data showing new enrollment and expansions of coverage. But who is Noonan talking about? Is she talking about herself? Someone she knows? Anyone? If you're going to use anecdotes to make an argument, at least count some damn lawn signs. You can't just make up fake horror stories as an example of a horror story.

Peggy Noonan is very angry that the White House and president might (based on stuff she heard) not understand the details and history of important policy. But if we insisted that those trying to make a political case do so based only on substantiated fact, Noonan herself might suddenly find herself having to stock a store or meet a payroll. At least then she might get some real horror stories.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.