If a tree falls in the Beltway and nobody reports on it, does it make a sound?
Last Wednesday Austan Goolsbee – soon to be the ex-Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors to President Obama – appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Goolsbee is about to head back to a teaching gig at the University of Chicago and Stewart spent a lot of time pointing out how “giddy” Goolsbee appeared to be now that he was getting out of Washington. Goolsbee didn’t make much of an attempt to refute Stewart’s assessment.
During the interview Stewart asked Goolsbee to explain to him why Obama had seemingly acquiesced to using the debt ceiling discussions as an excuse to suddenly start talking about getting the deficit under control. After all, Stewart pointed out, we had been told by the Obama White House that the stimulus had been what was needed and that it had worked. Why then would Obama now, in essence, decide to do the opposite and focus entirely on cutting the deficit and government spending?
Goolsbee’s response was interesting. Substantively, he punted and never really did answer Stewart’s question. Instead he simply reasserted that an economic stimulus had been required back in early 2009 and then claimed as well that “dealing with the long-term deficit” is also something that has to be addressed. He did not explain why it had to be addressed now, when one would think that greater and further stimulus efforts are really what is needed. But the most interesting rationale Goolsbee provided was the following: now that the deficit had been dealt with (kind of) by the Deficit Reduction Two-Step Shuffle, the President and the government could “pivot back” and start addressing the nation’s economic woes again.
Obviously, I don’t know Goolsbee and I am glad he is happy to be making his way back to academia, but if the man has spent the past two and a half years in the bowels of Washington and still thinks that now the government can pivot back to focusing on substantive economic issues the man is . . . well, he seems a little thick to tell you the truth.
Were this a fiction then I suppose it could be considered kind of naively charming to think of the President and his economic advisors imagining that they still have the power to set the nation’s agenda: ‘Look! they’re still innocents,’ we could all admiringly cry, happy that their basic humanity hadn’t been subsumed in cynicism. But in the event this sort of naiveté is just chilling. If the President thought he was cutting a deal by acquiescing to Republican demands in exchange for the power to frame the argument going into the 2012 election then, once again, he has traded the nation’s birthright for a mess of pottage.
The Teabagger-controlled Republican House has made it clear that it has absolutely no interest whatsoever in addressing economic issues or anything of substance. These people ran on a steady campaign drumbeat of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” and yet to date not a single Jobs Bill have they introduced in the House.
Oh sure, there have been plenty of abortion restriction bills, that is true. There have been plenty of entirely symbolic bills – the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the “Cut, Cap and Balance Bill” – that everyone involved spent time voting on even though they knew these bills would never get past the Senate, much less President Obama’s veto pen. There has been a lot of time spent on stunts like reading the Constitution out loud from the House floor (except for those parts that make us feel all icky, like how black people only count for 3/5ths as much as white people). But nothing that might help to actually get the country moving again.
And why not? I am sure the GOP has made the same cold-blooded political calculation that I have: the deeper the economy is in the toilet by November of next year, the better the chances the Republican party has of capturing the White House.
So even if Obama could “pivot” toward doing something substantive on the economic front, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish much. There isn’t a chance in Hell that the GOP House is going to let him do anything to help the American people . . . not until after next year’s election. Until then the best the American people can hope for is that our leaders on Capitol Hill don’t make things even worse.
But Obama’s real problem in trying to set an agenda isn’t, believe it or not, his GOP adversaries. It is the Washington political media. And against these people he has no weapon.
On The Daily Show, Goolsbee complained that so long as the debt ceiling fight was going on President Obama was powerless to change the topic from anything else. President Obama kept going to manufacturing plants to give speeches and try and drum up interest in America’s manufacturing industry, Goolsbee complained, and nobody would report on these visits because of this debt ceiling fight.
Once again Goolsbee comes off a bit thick here, as if despite spending years living cheek and jowl with America’s national political media he still can’t understand how they work. But it is very simple: our media do not care to learn about, think about or report about any of the substantive things that actually impact ordinary people. Things like laws, executive orders, the Fed or Treasury’s next move, the amount of money spent on the military or the social safety net and whether it might be better spent elsewhere, basic policy arguments about who we are as a people and what we should be trying to be . . . that stuff is boring.
No, what the media like is pageantry, conflict, confrontation. I have come to believe that all political reporters are working in their second-choice “safety” jobs – originally, they planned on being drama critics. This is why they fall all over themselves reporting all the latest, least sourced gossip they can find whenever anything even remotely related to a sexy sexy sex thing comes around: it is the closest they are ever likely to get to being paid a lot of money (and respect) to sit at home on the couch watching soap operas and speculating whether Hillary’s baby is Bill’s or not. It is the closest they will ever get to their dream job.
And that Austan, you big goo-goo-Goolsbee baby, is the real reason why nothing else Obama tried to do over the past two months was ever reported: because it didn’t fit what the media need. But the debt ceiling fight did fit. There were two sides, clearly distinguished. There was breathless brinkmanship. There were daring feints, blistering attacks, ambiguous walk-outs that afforded pundits hours of speculative TeeVee time that paid enormous compensation for almost no effort. There was drama, there was conflict and none of it – none of it – depended on who was right and who was wrong. That wasn’t the media’s problem, and it wasn’t anything the media were concerned with. It was the conflict that sold the story. Hell, so far as the media were concerned, the conflict was the story.
So . . . let’s just think about what we’ve got coming up next on the agenda.
Well, obviously, we’ve got the new Congressional SuperCommittee and its deliberations. This presents the media with precisely the same opportunity to report breathlessly, for months, who is winning and who is losing in the SuperCommittee.
Then, we’ll have the SuperCommittee’s recommendations, and breathless wonderment over who will vote for those recommendations, who will vote against them and what it all means for each party’s political future (but, curiously, no reporting at all about what it might mean for the rest of us or for the United States as a country).
Then don’t forget . . . we’re still scheduled to a months-long wrangling over the 2012 budget. Which means we’re once again in for another round of sexy, sexy 24-type excitement as we get to see whether this time Obama and the Dems can save the hostage without paying the ransom before the Republicans shoot her in the head. (If you think I’m being overly cynical, check out this quote from GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this – it’s a hostage that worth ransoming.”) (emphasis added).
And then, and then . . . Oh Joy! Oh Rapture! The 2012 election is on!! Mark my words, there won’t be a single goddamned substantive story penned about what Washington, DC is up to between June, 2012 and next year’s November election. Not one. It’ll be all horse race, all election, all the time. Who’s up? Who’s down? What did the candidates say? Ah, who’re we kidding? Who cares what the candidates said – the important question is did they sell it?
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So, yeah. Thanks, Goolsbee, Obama. Thanks guys. Let me know how that whole “now that we’ve given in on everything, we can focus on what we want to do” strategy works out for you.
Seriously. Good luck with that.