What didn’t the president know, and why didn’t he know it?

It’s an update on the old Watergate question about Richard Nixon’s state of knowledge, and it pretty much sums up the emerging media narrative about Barack Obama.

Conservatives must be rubbing their hands with glee as the good ol’ MSM, long suspected of being in the tank for the president, are suddenly submerged in a sea of anti-Obama news.

Perhaps this is the kind of rough patch that all presidents pass through. But I have the sense that we are at a turning point in the way that the president is perceived—by journalists, at least, if not by the general public.

Having emerged from the government shutdown in a much stronger position than the GOP, Obama was rocked hard by the fiasco surrounding the health care rollout. This was, after all, his most important domestic initiative, and he seemed unaware of the technological problems that crippled its launch.

Equally troubling is the news, first reported by NBC’s Lisa Myers, that the administration knew back in 2010 that the law was written in such a way that Obama’s promise about all folks being able to keep their health insurance plans could not be kept.

Then came the Wall Street Journal report that Obama didn’t know the NSA was conducting electronic surveillance against Angela Merkel and other leaders allied with the U.S. That was something of a shocker, even though the program started during the Bush administration.

Once you lose a reputation for competence, it is hard to get back. And much of the media are now depicting Obama as less than a hands-on leader.

Take this slap in the face:

“For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration.”

That isn’t Krauthammer or Kristol talking. It’s Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who writes:

“There’s no reason Obama should have known about Fast and Furious or diplomatic security requests. But how could he not know his spies were bugging the German chancellor?...

“On one level, it would be reassuring — and much more credible — if the White House admitted that Obama is more in the loop than he has let on. On another level, it would be disconcerting: Is it better that he didn’t know about his administration’s missteps — or that he knew about them and didn’t stop them?”

That’s the thing—if

Take another liberal Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen. He reaches for a baseball analogy:

“‘Can’t anybody here play this game?’ That phrase kept coming at me recently as I watched the impressively inept performance of the Obama administration in both foreign and domestic policy. On a given day, this administration makes the ’62 Mets look good.”

That team won 40 games.

How about the New York Times’ reliably liberal editorial page? It called the administration’s explanations on NSA surveillance “a pathetic mix of unsatisfying assurances about reviews under way, platitudes about the need for security in an insecure age, and the odd defense that the president didn’t know that American spies had tapped the German chancellor’s cellphone for 10 years.

“Is it really better for us to think that things have gone so far with the post-9/11 idea that any spying that can be done should be done and that nobody thought to inform President Obama about tapping the phone of one of the most important American allies?”

Politico calls it Obama’s “in-the-dark defense”:

“The bottom line explanation in all these instances is the same: President Obama didn’t know any more about the scandal than the ordinary person on the street, and certainly wasn’t involved in decision-making processes — at least, not until long after potential problems arose.”

Some of these controversies will blow over, and some will not. The challenge for the White House will be to change the media portrait of the president as a bystander in his administration.

Red State vs. National Review

I led yesterday’s column with an important piece in National Review, slapping the Ted Cruz defunding wing of the GOP and telling Republicans that the only way to achieve conservative goals was to start winning elections.

Now Red State’s Erick Erickson, who grew up with parents who read to him from National Review, pushes back hard against Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. He accuses the magazine of betraying the legacy of William F. Buckley:

“The apotheosis of slaying Buckley’s vision, many thought, was National Review’s ridiculous endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012. But, always willing to surprise their readers with just how much they’ve become the voice of the Republican Party instead of the conservative movement, their latest goes further.”

Erickson, a Fox News contributor, argues that winning isn’t everything:

“Like much of the Republican leadership, National Review wants to win majorities before unleashing hell, but history shows us repeatedly that Republicans never unleash hell once they have the majority. They become well-fed denizens of power, using it to reward friends and influence people, instead of willingly surrendering it to shrink the leviathan…Conservatism is about human freedom. Conservative publications need not be stenographers of the party.”

I view National Review as weighing in on the most important debate facing the Republican Party, not engaging in stenography. But the divide between Lowry and Erickson is undoubtedly going to play out through 2016.

Problem for PBS

In 2005, reports Baltimore Sun columnist David Zurawik, PBS’s “NewsHour,” with Jim Lehrer at the helm, reached 2.5 million viewers.

Now, he says, “the size of the ‘NewsHour’ audience in 2013 is down to 1.3 million a night…

“That's a loss of 48 percent of its audience in eight years -- 48 percent.

That's huge, but everyone in broadcast news has been hemorrhaging viewers the last decade, haven't they? Isn't that why we use the adjective 'dinosaur' when we describe the nightly news?

“Not, like this.

“Using the figures in my 2005 piece and the best Nielsen numbers I can confirm for 2013, the rate of decline for ABC ‘World News’ the last eight years has been 16 percent, while ‘NBC Nightly News’ has lost 17 percent of its audience. ‘CBS Evening News,’ meanwhile, is down 22 percent. That's an average of 18 percent for the three commercial nightly news shows.

None is close to the 48 percent for ‘NewsHour.’”

Meanwhile, veteran anchor Ray Suarez, who left the broadcast last week, discussed his departure with Fox News Latino:

“‘I felt like I didn’t have much of a future with the broadcast. [They] didn’t have much of a plan for me.’

“He said his resignation came because his contributions to the ‘NewsHour’ were heavily minimized. Suarez (no relation to the writer) said he just ‘didn’t see 2014 and 2015 were going to be better’ for him than the last couple of years.

“The 56-year-old, who joined the ‘NewsHour’ in 1999, said over the last couple of years his contributions to the broadcast were passed over and marginalized many times. He said decisions made recently by the company and new constrictions also played a part in his resignation — it just made it difficult to stay, he said.

“‘When you look at the prospects realistically, I was there 14 years,’ Suarez said. ‘The responsibility, the high responsibility … had all been gradually taken away.’”

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