Entry from March 9, 2009

Not surprisingly, the spin of the Washington Post about the Obama administration’s lifting of restrictions on government money for stem-cell research exactly matches that of the President himself, as I noticed at the time, in his inaugural address. “Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics” goes the headline to a piece by Rob Stein in today’s paper:

When President Obama lifts restrictions on funding for human embryonic stem cell research today, he will also issue a presidential memorandum aimed at insulating scientific decisions across the federal government from political influence, officials said yesterday. “The president believes that it’s particularly important to sign this memorandum so that we can put science and technology back at the heart of pursuing a broad range of national goals,” Melody C. Barnes, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, told reporters during a telephone briefing yesterday.

Likewise, The New York Times notes that “Mr. Obama’s announcement on Monday will be part of a broader initiative to make good on his pledge to separate science and politics.” But why not mention everything else that he wants to separate from politics, which is pretty much everything he does that is political. For political purposes, the political has to be labeled as non-political or, still better, a purging of politics from something that had been “politicized” by the evil ones who preceded him in office. As Mr Stein puts it:

The decision by President George W. Bush to restrict funding for stem cell research has been seen by critics as part of a pattern of allowing political ideology to influence scientific decisions across an array of issues, including climate change and whether to approve the morning-after pill Plan B for over-the-counter sales. “We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs,” [his scientific adviser Harold] Varmus said. “This is consistent with the president”s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

Ah, those anonymous critics! What a lot we used to see of them in the days of the unlamented Bush administration. People seemed to think that, by calling them “critics,” they were granting them an authority that just being politicians with a different point of view, which is what they really were, doesn’t carry with it.

Not surprising, as I say, that Mr Stein and the Post don’t see this, but you still might wonder how they have managed to persuade themselves that it is not political if there is a point of political contention with two equally clear and well-articulated opinions corresponding to two political factions within the country. Those factions are, on the one hand, those for who politics often boils down to the “life issues” and, on the other hand, those who regard the first group as dangerous fanatics standing in the way of progress. The fact that the media belong to the second faction rather than the first doesn’t make them — or the President — any less factional or “partisan” than their opponents. On another page, the Post’s polling expert, Chris Cillizza, can see this clearly enough:

The stem-cell signing — like the economic stimulus bill — is an example of the two different tracks that Obama and Republicans are currently on. Obama, with his base solidly on his side, is making policy with broad support among independents. Republicans, on the other hand, remain in the wilderness and are looking to rebuild from core principles, shoring up from their base of social and fiscal conservatives.

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