I was summoned to a meeting with Clear Channel Communications “talk radio guru”/consultant, Gabe Hobbs, after only a couple weeks on the job. Having just spent a chunk of the previous 15 years covering radio consultants, or more accurately, the inanity and chaos they left behind, I was prepared to sit across from a complete cartoon.  (OK, not every radio consultant I had met or interviewed was a “complete” cartoon. But that’s a little like saying “some cigarettes are good for you”, to which you reply, “yeah, the ones you don’t smoke.”)

In their wisdom the local Clear Channel group had decided that “a WCCO for the 21st century” was the way to go for the FM talk experiment they were starting up. By this they meant, I think, (I guessed), something just a bit hipper than Roger Strom’s farm reports and 37 minutes of commercials, teases, promos and traffic reports per hour. (And I LIKED Strom’s farm reports … at least then I knew I wasn’t in AnyMetro, USA.) My partner, Sarah Janecek (of Politics in Minnesota), and I were told that the new station, KTLK, wanted to prove that a lefty and a righty could co-exist with civility and humor. (I mean two scorpions in a bottle is pretty funny, right?)

So there we were meeting with Hobbs, just in from Florida on a brutally cold, grey, miserable January day. I struggled to ignore his orange hair and tamp down the siren in my brain shrieking, “CARTOON!”

After saying that he wasn’t sure what to make of the idea of dogs and cats playing together, Hobbs conceded he was intrigued by the righty-gal vs. the lefty-guy dynamic. And then he got to the nut of modern (conservative) talk radio.

(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but I swear the essentials are accurate.) “Try to keep in mind,” said Hobbs, “that the average listener for a show like yours is a 42 year-old guy who doesn’t follow the news all that close but is listening because he doesn’t want to be left out of the discussion. What he wants from you is something he can bring to conversations at work and at home. Something that makes it appear he’s in touch with what’s going on. You’re not here to educate him so much as you are to give him a few ideas he can throw out to feel like he’s part of the conversation.” Since this image so thoroughly gelled with the image I’d had for years of the Limbaugh Dittoheads and the rest, my Austin Powers-like obsession (“mole-y. mole-y, mole-y, mole-y”) with Hobbs’ tan, sports sweater and terra cotta-tinted hairdo subsided.

A radio audience of middle-aged guys who, for whatever the reason — distraction, indifference, laziness and/or stupidity — haven’t done their own homework on the big events of the day but want to pretend they have among their workmates, pals and spouses, by staying up to date with the bumper sticker slogan du jour. Hmmm, and I guessed “Make Love Not War” wasn’t exactly what these guys wanted to repeat down at the office, across forklifts in the warehouse, or over dinner, to impress the wife and kids with how tough it is out in there in a real man’s world. Beyond Hobbs’ carefully parsed point, is this: The “pretense” of thoughtful consideration, at least in terms of a commercially successful narrative delivered via mass media, requires much … much … heavier doses of simplicity and indignant finger-pointing than scholarly nuance.

The show that followed was, by any objective assessment, a disaster. Rabid scorpions were more civil … and a lot funnier. (A classic moment: The Tom Tancredo “illegal immigrant” hysteria was raging on every other radio show. But our producer had put together a funny montage of sound bites and told me, “After the open, get to this as fast as possible.” For some reason Sarah hadn’t got the heads-up on that one. She wanted to brawl out of the gate. So as I’m yabbering about a weird piece of nonsense I heard, trying to set up the bit, she’s coming at me with both barrels. “The Democrats … ” were playing politics with immigration!!!  Yadda yadda. Loud and furious. A minute into the show. There’s no hope of getting to the taped bit. But the first scheduled break is still six or seven minutes off. Which means our producer is not expecting me to say, “OK, we’ll be right back … ” when I do. Which also means he’s slow to cut my mike as I, thinking we’ve gone to commercial, turn to Sarah and shout, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Apparently the commercial largely obscured the bad word, although not enough to prevent a head from popping open the studio door and asking,  “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?” )

Sarah and I have remained friends, but within a month of launching the show, Clear Channel ordered a “hard right turn” — playing to where the audience already was (screw that experimenting with a “21st century ‘CCO” crap) — and the negotiating to bring Jason Lewis back to town ramped up in earnest.

This is all a lot of set-up for a couple thoughts on the little-lamented demise of Air America, the “liberal alternative” to the monolithic presence of conservative-radio. There are roughly 12,500 radio stations in the U.S., 22% fall under “news/talk” and “religious”. The former describes a few, like WCCO, and WBBM in Chicago, but mostly its conservative talk,  and the vast majority of the “religious” are conservative-driven. Moreover, a significant of those conservative stations are full-power licenses, broadcasting across the entirety of  all of the biggest metro areas in the country. By … stark … contrast, from its inception in 2004 Air America was confined to much lower-power AM stations that only barely blanketed the entirety of the few  metro markets they could buy in to.

But the bigger problem — by far — is the mindset of your average liberal, who, in my unscientific survey is a somewhat different animal than Gabe Hobbs’ mythical under-informed 42 year-old male.  For one thing, if the gender breakout of national delegates is any indication, the average liberal is more likely to be a woman than a man. But, in my experience, there’s also the very familiar liberal quality of believing you already are the smartest guy/gal in the room, which means you hardly need some cartoonish radio bloviator spoon-feeding you your “fact of the day”. More likely — if you’re a liberal in the media — the liberal audience with whom you think you are simpatico will rear up and quarrel with every interpretation of statistics, trends and historical reference you dare make. They know better and if just given the chance could do better.

Where conservative media audiences display a startling affinity for what I’ve called “The Big Daddy Guru Complex”, pompous-to-preposterous all-knowing father figures, liberals, more often than not, maintain the attitude that “big daddy” is a bit of a ponce, and needs to be brought down a peg.

The relevancy here is the current context of Obama/liberals trying to restart … oh hell, invent … a narrative as compelling and digestible and easily transferable as the one the conservative opposition has going.

To illuminate the problem, three dead-on quotes from the past week:

From Joe Klein at TIME:

“Absolutely amazing poll results from CNN today about the $787 stimulus package: nearly three out of four Americans think the money has been wasted. On second thought, they may be right: it’s been wasted on them. Indeed, the largest single item in the package–$288 billion–is tax relief for 95% of the American public. This money is that magical $60 to $80 per month you’ve been finding in your paycheck since last spring. Not a life changing amount, but helpful in paying the bills.

“The next highest amount was $275 billion in grants and loans to states. This is why your child’s teacher wasn’t laid off…and why the fire station has remained open, and why you’re not paying even higher state and local taxes to close the local budget hole.

“It turns out that what people are really upset about is all that wasteful money that has gone to political public works projects…except that the overwhelming portion of that money hasn’t been spent yet. Remember all those “shovel-ready” projects? Well, they didn’t exist. The big jobs-creating projects like the rebuilt “smart” electric grid, major highways and fast trains will come on line during the next year.

“So, two thoughts:

“1. The Obama Administration has done a terrible job explaining the stimulus package to the American people…especially since there have been very few documented cases of waste so far.

“2. This is yet further evidence that Americans are flagrantly ill-informed…and, for those watching Fox News, misinformed.

“It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don’t make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.”

And E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post:

“But the success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much money and that things have not turned around as fast as they hoped.
Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side.

“The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

“Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the very conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics than it ought to be.”

And Drew Westen via The Huffington Post:

“We have competing ideas in a democracy — and hence competing parties — for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.

“What happens if you refuse to lay the blame for the destruction of our economy on anyone — particularly the party, leaders, and ideology that were in power for the last 8 years and were responsible for it? What happens if you fail to “brand” what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover’s Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do? What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you’re going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?

“The answer was obvious a year ago, and it is even more obvious today: Voters will come to blame you for not having solved a problem you didn’t create, and you will allow the other side to create an alternative narrative for what’s happened (government spending, deficits, big government, socialism) that will stick. And it will particularly stick if you make no efforts to prevent it from starting or sticking.”

The takeaway is this: The Conservative narrative dominates this country because it is simple, asks (and requires) nothing of its audience other than that they accept it and express a kind of rote indignation … at others. It is as relentless as all good advertising in asserting a course of action through incessant repetition, (destroy all liberals.) And it is wholly unapologetic about any fallacies it has propagated or mistakes it has made.

Given the lack of 2000-plus radio stations to amplify a counter-narrative, as well as liberal resistance to paternalistic “guru-ism”, Obama and the few bona fide liberals in D.C. are at a profound disadvantage when it comes to a very real battle of relentless accusation and sloganized consensus-building , which, sadly, is what works quite effectively on largely apolitical 42 year-olds who just want to sound like they know what they’re talking about.

Bottom line: The burden to deliver such a message of constant attack — utterly justified in the case of how this economic disaster started — falls to a guy, Obama, who finds shamelessly demagogic rhetoric and divisive-ness-baiting beneath him and his idealistic standards of statesmanship.

Obama has to get over his “statesman”-like idealism and find his inner Huey Long. The rabble like to be roused.

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46 thoughts on “AIR AMERICA: D.O.A.

  1. leftymn says:

    best clear headed analysis of the zeitgeist of current America and the power of media shaping of opinion as I have seen.

  2. I guess I’m a reflection of the liberal tendencies you’re writing about. I hated Air America because it seemed premised on the assumption that the best way to advance a progressive agenda was to mirror the tone and tactics of the right. I don’t think I was alone in being turned off by this approach even while being in philosophical agreement on the underlying issues.

    And, yes, I’m an elitist. I don’t think I learn much from the average talk show caller or from the hosts either.

    That said, I do occasionally listen to talk radio, almost always to the righties. It’s good to know what your opponents are saying.

    – Austin

  3. Joe Loveland says:

    Very thought-provoking. The anecdote about the conservative talk radio listener profile was fascinating.

    However, I’m not convinced that Obama can talk his way back into the hearts of swing voters. During the 2008 election, Obama successfully tapped into the war- and economy-based angst of swing voters because he was then campaigning as an outsider populist. So, the solution to win back the swing voters would seem to be becoming a Huey Long-like outsider populist on the issues of the war and the economy, as you suggest here. Start doing that thing that worked before, right?

    But here’s the problem. About six months after the Inauguration, swing voters gave the boy President ownership of the economy and wars. Fair or not, he owns them in their minds. If he reminds them that Bush started The Troubles, they’ll agree. But that won’t absolve him of responsibility for fixing the wars and economy. That’s what he told them he would do. That’s the job they hired him to do. So, those are the swing voters’ success metrics.

    Because of that context, Obama won’t sink or swim on the basis of his spin. At this point, Obama will sink or swim on the basis of the unemployment and soldier death rates. If parents go back to work and soldiers go back home, Obama’s words will start resonating like FDR’s and Reagan’s did. If they don’t, the very same words will fall as flat as Hoover’s and Carter’s did.

    1. i don’t really disagree, other than to reiterate that the mistake that was made was failing to “brand” the recession, and the wars, as the disasters of someone else’s making. The repetition of those … truths … and repeated counter-attack on those trying to slide it off on him as fast as possible would have discombobulated the media a bit more than his idealistic, bi-partisan, calming-troubled-waters approach. But having not done that, the way forward is a lot tricker.

  4. PM says:

    I also couldn’t stand Air America, for the same reason I can’t stand Fox News (and most of talk radio)–I do not want to listen to the uninformed opinions of stupid people expressed via screaming and ranting. yes, I am also an elitist (which is not the same thing as a liberal–read David Brooks today on populism–there have been plenty of conservative intellectuals that I read and admire).

    Why try to create something that is doomed to fail (Air America)? Go instead for something that already works–public radio. There is your largely female, liberal market for an alternative narrative, one that does not offend it’s listeners, one that seeks to engage them in exactly the type of discussion Lambert describes.

    Of course, that is a means to get out the narrative–it is not the narrative itself. Really, I do not think the problem is the lack of an appropriate medium, it is the lack of an appropriate narrative, one that will resonate, one that can be used at the water fountain or over the forklift.

    1. What I’m trying to get at is that popular narrative, a counter to the very familiar — and largely recklessly bogus — narratives of modern talk radio, etc. It shouldn’t be as difficult as it sounds. The offenses against — the average working class 42 year-old guy — by previous administrations were and are pretty damned extreme. The point is you have to remind them … often. And you have to create enough drama around it that they understand the incremental process of restoring balance to this system.

  5. 108 says:

    You, Thomas Frank – the complaint of not having the winning narrative is a restatement of Marx’s false consciousness.

    Obama won a year ago with a compelling narrative. Even if you don’t think he’s guilty of some typical liberal duplicity, it should be easy to acknowledge that he’s strayed from that compelling narrative.

    There’s a few compelling articles out now that explain the recent electoral setbacks. Suburban voters recoil as Obama moves to the left, rather Macomb County like. You can either believe that or embrace the false consciousness argument, which I gather has the benefit of not having to admit your assumptions are wrong (again).

    “there’s also the very familiar liberal quality of believing you already are the smartest guy/gal in the room”

    That’s big of you. I think that’s a giant problem in liberal politics. Electorally it’s more of a problem than the right’s lack of appreciation for institutions of social cohesion.

    1. “False” consciousness? Nice of you to conflate Karl Marx with Barack Obama, but there’s nothing “false” about reminding otherwise apolitical voters who created the mess they’ve been thrown in to. Bill Clinton may not have been exactly vigilant during the ’90s boom, but Barack Obama’s colossal plate of disasters was in no way his doing, and 12 months is wildly unrealistic in terms of setting things right.

      1. Mike Kennedy says:

        The Administration has done nothing but blame Bush since day one. I’ve seen countless clips of Obama and members of his administration blaming Bush, blaming the last 8 years, blaming the previous administration.

        Alas, the problem isn’t that voters haven’t heard that, it’s that a lot of people don’t believe it. And rightly so. There’s a lot I blame Bush for, but this crisis wasn’t all of his making.

        Perhaps that’s why people are smart enough to hold Congress in near contempt and many wonder if the the Fed chairman should get another term.

        Blaming one man and his advisors for turning a $15 trillion economy into the ditch? Wow, he really must be the most powerful man on the planet.

        If that is so, why can’t “the current occupant” (thanks Gary Keillor), use his powers of greatness to rescue it?

      2. Correction here, Mike. Obama should be blaming one man, his advisors … and their anachronistic governing ethos … for the present disaster. As we both know, George W. was just a half-witting pass-through.

      3. 108 says:

        I’m not conflating Obama with Marx. I’m conflating you, Thomas Frank, and Joe Klein with Marx. Your argument that the public buys into the wrong narrative is Marx’s false consciousness. Its the same. Period, end of story.

        Obama’s merits or lack thereof are (almost) immaterial. Arguing false consciousness allows you to avoid very rational explanations for what happens in politics.

      4. PM says:

        So, 108, are you trying to say that Marx’s conception of a false consciousness (among the proletariat) is accurate, and that Brian is a fool for not following/utilizing that explanation? Or that Brian is a “Marxist” because he is arguing something that is the same as a point (supposedly) made by Marx?

  6. Dave says:

    All talk radio listeners behave the same. Have you ever flipped on KFAN the day after a Vikings loss? Everyone thinks they know it all with the limited information they have. Is conservative talk radio guilty as charged? Yes. Is it any different in all formats of talk radio? Nope. It’s the nature of the listener.

    You can’t support a liberal argument with quotes from liberals. They are part of the same problem. They can’t get through their heads that congress owns more of this mess than Bush or Obama. And congress has been controlled by the Dems for three years now.

    Brian you make some good points. If Obama wants to turn things around, he needs to start to explain. Ditch the damn teleprompter and talk to people. Explain what is in the healthcare bill. Explain in English why the stimulus was good. He has spent too much time spinning and too little time explaining.

    P.S. I listened to Air America several times. It was terrible radio. Throw a compelling personality on the radio and you would get listeners.

    1. You’ll get no arguments from me on the entertainment factor of Air America. They had a couple good acts. But nothing remotely like Jon Stewart — who is happy to skewer liberals when he sees fit. But, Dave, I’m not giving the Bush administration a pass with the “Dems have controlled Congress for three years” line. You only have to look at the threat/use of filibuster — a ten-fold increase — to seriously question how much control the majority party has over legislation. Bottom line: Focus on the gross mismanagement of the previous administration and the complete — and I do mean complete – intransigence and opposition — of Congressional Republicans to serious problem solving.

  7. Ellen Mrja says:

    “Obama has to get over his “statesman”-like idealism and find his inner Huey Long. The rabble like to be roused.” Great line. And you’re right.

    One year and three months ago, if you’d asked candidate Obama for his his three-word pitch, he would have answered: “Yes We Can.”

    Today it would be: “Well… It’s Complicated.”

  8. Momkat says:

    I listened to Air America for a while but it began to sound boring and repetitious to me. MPR is always thought-provoking to me, a liberal female. (Good one, PM.) And I think we should give our president more than a year to hit his stride.

    1. I spend quite a bit of time with NPR, mainly for the eclectic choice of stories (there’s only so much politics anyone can digest), but also the depth — which is a factor of having more than 30 seconds to explain the latest twist in a 1000 page piece of legislation. Still, NPR has a couple holes in its editorial offerings. For example, a regular moderated debate show would be both interesting and valuable.

  9. rob levine says:

    Air America had the misfortune of not being supported by a world-wide media consortium that was wiling to invest (and initially lose) hundred of millions of dollars like, for example, Fox noise or by the Korean CIA like the Washington Times.

    1. What are you saying? That the fearsome, all-powerful, all-conniving, freedom-destroying billions that George Soros lavished on Air America (as Rupert Murdoch has on his properties) don’t count?

      Oh, wait …

  10. leftymn says:

    So yesterday the voters of the state of Oregon by 54%-46% approved an increase in taxes on higher income individuals (affecting 3% of the population there) and on corporations.

    Nobody is talking about this ? While a pretty boy candidate in Mass who worked his ass off against another candidate who took a vacation during the campaign and won almost never claiming himself to be a Republican is the end of Democratic liberal ascendancy and the Obama administration?

    I see fear and impatience out there, but the teabaggers and no new taxes crowd are not necessarily going to benefit if the game is changed to focus on different outcomes.

    If there ever was a time to soak the rich and the corporations and investment banks and balance your state deficits, now is it. Let the weeping and gnashing of teeth of the neoclassical Milton Friedmanites begin.

    1. Mike Kennedy says:

      Hey now:

      There’s an idea. Tax all the people who have been creating jobs and all the corporations more (one of the highest taxes on corporatons in the industrialized world isn’t enough for lefties). That will surely get the economy humming again, now won’t it.

      We all know corporations won’t pass that on (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) to consumers. Yeah, just tax those big bad corporations more. That’s the ticket. That will create more jobs and a better standard of living.

      As for Airhead America, don’t you have to have listeners in order to lose them?

      1. I love … LOVE … the mewling over corporate tax rates. Clearly major corporations just can’t get a break in this country — other than ever-increasing productivity from workers who haven’t experienced a cost-of-living increase in actual compensation worth spitting at in over 20 years and who are allowed a fraction of the paid vacation of workers everywhere else … and please, lets not get into talking of being held captive out of fear of losing insurance benefits. I know you didn’t mean to skip over the lack of a VAT here in this country, or explore how many of these over-taxed giants actually paying the top rate … or anything at all for that matter. But I have a deal for you, Mike. Let’s go all Steve Forbes and “reduce” all corporate taxation to a flat 25% of international gross — no re-registering in Singapore or the Grand Cayman. That’s a 14% “cut” … which every shrewd accountant at every job-producing American corporation would howl over like he was a stuck pig.

      2. Mike Kennedy says:

        I’m on board. Let’s do it. Fat chance that any members of Congress, whose own wheels are being greased by lawyeyers, accountants and such, will ever buy into the idea.

      3. Mike Kennedy says:

        Oh, and Brian, I am truly offended.


        Really? I’ve been accused of bellowing, yelling and going nuclear (flying spittle and bits of teeth) — but mewling isn’t in my makeup.

  11. Mrs. Fay says:

    I used to listen to Air America. It was smart for about a minute. My local affiliate disappeared and even then, I tried listening online. They lost all of their smart talkers, and Montel Williams became the headliner…that’s a major reason why they failed.

  12. I don’t know how anyone can stand much of talk radio -period.

    Especially MPR. It seems to be a station designed to appeal to suburban moms who don’t consume much media. When it’s not begging for money to pay the plutocrats who run it, it programs an unhealthy dose of propaganda driven by the false balance necessitated by their own version of political correctness. As but one example, an hour of Richard Perle with Kari Miller. What is the value of that?

    Sports talk might be more listen-toable but the prevalence of commercials is tiring within the first half hour, not to mention the inevitable right of center, know-nothing politics of the hosts.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the two most prevalent types on all of radio: right wing and religious.

    At least on liberal talk radio (not AA) you can hear the Stephanie Miller show, where the hosts are reality driven AND funny. Thom Hartmann is truly a thoughtful and interesting host. The guys from the Uptake I thought did a good job when they were on 950.

    Given the competition, I have to at least give AA credit for trying something new and introducing fresh voices. AM950 might not be Air America anymore, but they are certainly a strong progressive voice.

    1. 108 says:

      Its “Kerri”. I could listen to those mellifluous tones all day long.

      No – Stephanie Miller is not funny. Another exercise in self affirmation within the liberal feedback loop.

  13. First of all, I truly enjoyed the Lambert and Janecek circus on KTLK. Now that that’s out of the way…

    Your assertion that the “conservative narrative” permeates the nation because it’s monkey-simple and monkey-people are constantly beat over the head with it is mildly offensive, to say the least. Monkey-simple threads of narrative that is indeed of a conservative nature is constantly bought and sold by monkey-people all day long but:

    A) that’s but a portion of the narrative in the conservative pundit-sphere, and
    B) that’s hardly a uniquely conservative phenomenon. Like Ed Schultz, for example. Or so many others.

    But broad brushes sure do make for easy picture-painting.

    1. I’m happy to debate you at any time — in any place — over any beverage — on both the quantitative and qualitative differences between the two competing narratives. Liberal hyperbole sells very badly to its target audience, while the conservative version is a dietary staple.

      1. PM says:

        Is that because trying to convince liberals of a common narrative is like herding cats? Or that conservatives are naturally bovine? Or…..why?

  14. Newt says:

    Air Anti-America failed because it wasn’t a commercial model – it was a political tool in search of a commercial model. Even worse, in the marketplace of ideas, its ideas were unwanted.

    Brian’s screed about KTLK reveals that (a) he hated his audience and (b) he blamed his audience for not liking him. Granted, media consultants are tools. But you can’t hate your audience (which was incorrectly understood and defined by Mr.Hobbs) and expect to succeed in media. Unless of course you’re in a monopoly situation like the Strib.

    The common narrative of the left is that conservative ideology is fast-food for simple minds, and that liberalism is steeped in complexity and nuance and, hence, is too challenging for the masses to absorb and support. Please keep believing that.

    Obama – and his entire liberal coterie – are of the belief that his messaging and communication are deficient. It is beyond their comprehension that his failed and flawed policies could be at the root of his problems. It seems even that the public’s basic expression of dissent is abhorrent to him. Which is odd in a Democracy. Don’t these dumb Americans know what I am doing for them, he wonders in disbelief?

    The unprincipled Congressional Democratic majority has now turned against him and he will be a lame duck for the remainder of his one-term presidency.

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