In a lengthy article on why “progressives are perpetually put on the defensive by the right-wing,” Don Hazen, the executive editor of AlterNet, argues “the relentless conservative propaganda machine dominates the public discourse more than ever. “ Hazen is among many that see right-wing media power as the critical factor shifting public debate to the right. But right-wing media would not be setting the terms of the national debate if Democrats, starting with President Obama, were aggressively promoting a progressive agenda. Obama has become so comfortable as responder in chief to right wing media framing that he does little to put Republicans on the defensive, or to control the national debate. Obama fails to seize the policy initiative even on issues – such as extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy or extending aid to the unemployed – when the public is strongly on their side. Its weak national Democratic politicians that allow the right wing media to promote its agenda, a dynamic Obama and others worsen by then fighting battles on Republican terms.

In making his case for the impact of right-wing media, Don Hazen focuses on the rising numbers who deny any connection between human-created pollution and global warming, question Barack Obama’s place of birth, and have increasingly negative views of public employees. Conservative media has certainly impacted all three issues. But while the birthers have not shaped any meaningful public debate, the other examples better reflect a President that has not sought to control the national debate around either issue.

The limits of the right-wing media machine were shown by Obama’s success in controlling the national debate in the early and closing months of the national care health care struggle. Its message is that when Democrats aggressively push their own agendas, they put Republicans rather than themselves on the defensive.

Controlling The Health Care Debate

After President Obama took office and immediately controlled the national debate around the stimulus package, he then put all of the nation’s eyes on the drive for health care reform. Obama was so focused on health care that he insisted that other top campaign priorities like comprehensive immigration reform and labor law revisions be put aside until a health care measure was enacted.

But recall what happened only months after the health care drive began. Obama turned control of the process to Senators Max Baucus, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, as he allowed his obsession with “bipartisanship” to lead him to believe that conservative Republicans would back his health care bill.

In August, the astroturf “town meetings” with their talk of “death panels” put Obama on the defensive. Was this due to right-wing media, or did Obama’s disengagement from the process open the door for these type of lies?

Recall January 2010, when Obama was going to give up on a sweeping health bill after Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election. Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted health care reform go forward, and pushed Obama to make it a major priority until passage.

And in the following months, the right-wing media machine could not derail health care because Democrats were aggressively pushing its passage.

As I wrote in The Activist’s Handbook, the side that sets the terms of a political debate is much likelier to win. If Democrats are relentlessly pushing their agenda, the right-wing media machine can do little more than respond. If Democrats are not on the march, the right wing media seizes upon this power vacuum and puts them on the defensive by shifting the national policy debate.

Post Health-Care Confusion

Since passing health care reform, Obama has ping ponged from issue to issue.

One minute his State of the Union address is trumpeting high-speed rail, and then he allows Republicans to cut $1 billion from its budget. In contrast, Republican Presidents never allowed sharp cuts to their favorite initiatives.

Obama – not right wing talk show hosts or FOX News – created a Deficit Reduction Commission that left the President promoting budget cutting while his core constituents wanted jobs. Obama’s message on budget cutting is so confused and unfocused – he’s for a balanced budget, but wants to protect Social Security and to barely touch the massive military and intelligence budget – that it is no wonder that the right-wing media message urging massive cuts to all programs is more likely to take center stage.

On immigration reform, Obama could put Republicans on the defensive by creating a national debate behind his stopping deportations of those who would be protected under the DREAM Act. It’s the President, not right-wing media, preventing this.

Or Obama could create a national debate about public employees, instead of just saying a few words and even refusing to go to Wisconsin during the collective bargaining fight.

But this is not a President who rallies the public around controversial issues, and he sets the tone for other national Democrats.

Right-Wing Media Demands Accountability

The right-wing media constantly badgers Republican politicians to stay the course. But many progressives are satisfied if those they elect keep any of their campaign promises.

While Hazen agrees that progressive media spends far too much time focusing on Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump and other right-wing media stars, the greater problem is that key Democratic constituencies and progressive media publicly support Obama despite his lack of national leadership.

So whereas conservatives invest in right-wing media to hold the politicians they elect accountable, perhaps progressive media is less funded because those concerned with progressive change do not see it as doing likewise.

Jerry Brown’s Model

As long as the Democratic Party base accepts politicians who do not seek to control the national agenda, that’s what we will get. And to those who believe that any Democrat will fall prey to the right-wing media machine, check out California Governor Jerry Brown.

After four months in office, Brown so controls the public debate that voters are strongly calling for tax increases on the rich in order to avoid cuts in public services. Brown never wavers, never switches to topics other than the budget, and continually frames the crisis in populist terms.

So those believing that the right-wing media machine cannot be overcome should start paying attention to California. Such a victory is happening here.

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.