Coverage of economy repeats Iraq mistakes

Barack Obama is still nearly 100 hours away from becoming the 44th president of the United States, and already some in the media are looking ahead to the next election.

Barack Obama is still nearly 100 hours away from becoming the 44th president of the United States, and already some in the media are looking ahead to the next election.

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider wonders, “How long will the voters give President Barack Obama to turn the economy around?” Looking back at Presidents Reagan and Clinton, Schneider finds that “Obama can expect midterm grades in two years, and final grades at the end of four. Another conclusion: Grades are based on many subjects, not just the economy.”

Not exactly groundbreaking stuff -- at least not to anyone familiar with the fact that the United States has congressional (“midterm”) elections every two years and presidential elections every four. So why would Schneider bother with such banal “analysis”? Maybe because the elite media can't help but approach serious policy questions from a purely political point of view -- even when there just isn't anything interesting to say about the politics of the matter.

The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny recently offered the warning that if Obama's stimulus plan “doesn't work out, he may very well be a one-term president.” That sounds reasonable, right? After all, as Zeleny points out, “It's hard to imagine that he could be reelected if the economy's in the exact same position four years from now.”

Then again, who could have predicted eight years ago that a man who became president by judicial fiat after he lost the popular vote could ignore warnings that Al Qaeda was “determined to strike in [the] U.S.,” watch exactly that happen on his watch, lie the nation into war in a nation that didn't attack us, divert attention away from capturing Osama bin Laden, and run up massive deficits by cutting taxes for his rich cronies would be re-elected after all that?

How many people predicted in 1966 that Lyndon Johnson wouldn't even run for re-election two years later? Remember how quickly the news media wrote off Bill Clinton after the 1994 midterm elections, only to see him win 370 electoral votes just two years later? (Or how they wrote him off in New Hampshire in 1992? Or after he wrapped up the Democratic nomination? Or at about a dozen other times during that campaign?)

Come to think of it, how many New York Times reporters predicted two years ago that Barack Obama would win the presidency in 2008?

Point being: Political fortunes can change in a hurry, and the media pundits are nearly as bad at recognizing that simple fact as they are at making predictions. Maybe it would be best to lay off the speculation that Obama won't win a second term -- at least until he begins his first. The time they save could be used to provide some much-needed balance to news reports about the current economic crisis.

Last weekend, CNN broadcast a two-hour special that consisted entirely of airing an anti-deficit documentary and discussing it with a handful of guests, all of whom agreed with the film's contention that reducing the national debt must be an immediate and urgent priority.

Economist Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research argues that the film's deeply flawed focus on the deficit is not only misguided, but dangerous: “The basic story of IOUSA is that the United States suffers from a massive deficit problem. The film constantly comes back to the deficit using a variety of measures that are intended to scare viewers into action. ... Hopefully, the film will not have this effect, because there is nothing that the economy needs more right now than very large deficits. ... If IOUSA viewers manage to persuade their representatives in Congress to balance the budget then they will be guaranteeing the country another Great Depression.”

Not only did CNN devote two hours to the wrong problem, neither the guests nor the CNN reporters involved offered any real solution. Early on in the program, Alice Rivlin, a director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton, did note that reducing overall health-care costs is one way to address Medicare spending -- but her CNN hosts all but ignored her. Though CNN devoted two hours to the program, they never explored how we might reduce health-care costs -- and that was the closest they came to offering an actual solution.

Instead, viewers were treated to two hours of gloom and doom about the speed with which the sky is approaching the earth, interspersed with grave warnings that we must do something and self-congratulating statements that politicians must have courage to take unspecified unpopular steps to get the deficit under control and begin to pay down the debt.

That's what passes for serious discussion of issues to the news media -- saying politicians lack the courage to take unpopular stands all while avoiding mention of any specific solutions yourself. That isn't serious, and it isn't courageous. It's a dull platitude that does nothing to help anyone understand anything.

Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Stark (among others) has a health-care plan that independent analysts have said would reduce overall health-care costs (which would, in turn, reduce Medicare spending and thus address the prospect of looming budget deficits) while increasing the quality of medical care Americans receive. You might think something like that would get Stark invited on CNN to discuss how his plan might address the problems they spent two hours insisting would soon spell the end of civilization as we know it. But as the Center for American Progress' Matt Yglesias explained this week, proposals like Stark's aren't taken seriously because of a mistaken assumption that the only “pragmatic” solutions are those that are considered “moderate”:

In the United States, slavish adherence to “moderate” positions is often construed as exhibited “pragmatism” that's in distinction to the more “ideological” views of people with less centrist views. In fact, moderation can reflect ideology ever[y] bit as much as extremism can.


[T]he Commonwealth Fund has a write-up of some Lewin Group analyses of different congressional health care bills.


Pete Stark's bill, the most left-wing of the lot (it's sort of a “Medicare for many more” proposal) covers the most people. And here's their impact on health care costs.


Stark's is the best again. And yet there's no chance whatsoever that we'll actually do this because his plan, though the most practical, is also the most left-wing. Far too left-wing for the United States of America[.]


[W]hat's incredibly frustrating is that a lot of people who claim to want to change public policy to expand health care coverage and better control health care costs will nonetheless fail to embrace Stark's plan or anything similar for no real reason other than ideological posturing. It just can't be the case, as a matter of centrist dogma, that the best solution is actually the most left-wing solution. It's a far more ideological stance than anything you'll ever hear from Pete Stark or from me. But the people hewing to it will insist on being called pragmatists.

If the Commonwealth Fund is right, Pete Stark's health-care plan would improve medical care while reducing health-care costs and, thus, improving the nation's fiscal health. And yet when the news media pontificate about the need to address budget deficits, they rarely even mention solutions like this. You can bet, however, that they'll bring up the possibility of cutting benefits or raising the retirement age. See, benefit cuts -- which won't have much effect on millionaire news anchors, but will badly hurt their viewers -- are serious solutions, advocated by courageous people.

Serious, courageous people like Pete Peterson, whose foundation is behind the documentary CNN aired. Peterson is among the most influential figures sounding the alarm about the increasing national debt. In 1993, Peterson's intense focus on the government's balance sheets led him to oppose universal health care, writing: “The issue isn't whether these new [universal health] benefits would be nice to have. They would. The issue is whether we can afford it. We can't.”

As it turns out, Peterson was wrong. The issue was whether we could afford not to reform health care -- and the answer is that we couldn't. Since Peterson's declaration that we couldn't afford universal health care, millions more Americans have gone without health care, even as per-capita health-care spending has doubled, bringing Medicare costs -- and the national debt -- along with it. Even by Peterson's own preferred metric -- whether a policy adds to or reduces deficits -- his views on health care have proved such a spectacular failure it's a wonder President Bush didn't choose him to run HHS.

And yet, CNN devotes two hours to an uncritical airing of a movie and an unbalanced discussion that advance Peterson's views. What's next? A prime-time special about which countries Doug Feith wants to invade next?

Not only do the news media all but ignore the possibility that reforms that provide health care to millions more Americans could also reduce our overall spending, they typically assume the opposite is true. When covering health-care proposals, reporters often behave as though the single most important question is how much the proposal will cost and how it will be paid for -- never considering the possibility that, done right, health-care reform could pay for itself, with money left to spare. Throughout last year's presidential primaries, that was the health-care question the Democratic candidates got most often -- how would they pay for their plans?

On the other hand, the media tend to buy into the Republicans claims that tax cuts magically pay for themselves. The presidential primary debates offer a striking illustration of this contrast: Democratic candidates were asked how they would pay for their health-care plans, while Republicans were not asked what programs they would cut in order to pay for their tax cuts. To the contrary, at one debate hosted by MSNBC, moderator Chris Matthews invited the Republican candidates to each name a tax cut they favored in addition to making the Bush tax cuts permanent. Rather than pressing the GOP hopefuls on how they would pay for making Bush's tax cuts permanent, Matthews encouraged them to propose additional unpaid-for tax cuts.

It is safe to assume, by the way, that Chris Matthews has adequate health care -- and that with his $5 million annual salary, he would stand to benefit from the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans the conservatives have been advocating.

And so the media's coverage of public policy debates presents a narrow spectrum of opinion -- basically, ranging from “moderate” “pragmatists” who advocate “entitlement reform” (which, coming from the mouth of a Beltway insider, tends to be code for “benefit cuts”) to conservatives who advocate tax cuts at every turn (resulting in deficits that, the conservatives and the “moderates” agree, will require “entitlement reform”).

Of course, there is a way to address the growing costs of entitlements without cutting benefits -- the Pete Stark way. But that option rarely makes it into news reports. It isn't serious.

Instead of allowing for the possibility that enacting universal health care could actually help solve many of the structural problems with our economy and, over time, significantly reduce the deficit, reporters assume the opposite: that health care must be a casualty of the current economic crisis, rather than away out. As New York Times reporter Peter Baker put it, “A lot of the things [Obama] said on the campaign trail you can now dispense with. ... For the moment he has to focus on the economy. ... You're not going to see universal health care, I don't think, this year.”

Never mind the possibility that focusing on the economy might argue in favor of universal health care. To the elite media, a recession -- when people most need help from their government -- is the worst time to provide health care to the millions who go without it. You can just see Peter Baker, in the midst of the Great Depression, arguing that all those old folks starving in the street sure were a shame, but we better delay the creation of Social Security -- you know, so we can address “the economy.”

And how do we address dire economic times if not by pursuing policies like health-care reform that would help those hardest hit by tough times? Tax cuts, of course! Tax cuts are always a serious solution -- and remember: Tax cuts don't need to be paid for. Oh, and don't forget -- you can't target tax cuts to the middle class and the poor, lest you be accused of giving a tax cut to “people who don't pay taxes.” Better make sure people making more than $200,000 a year enjoy the bulk of the benefit of those tax cuts -- never mind that they're less likely to spend the money they save and that encouraging spending is basically the whole point of using tax cuts as an economic stimulus.

Put it all together, and what do we have? According to the news media, Barack Obama has to fix the economy, or he'll be a one-term president. And according to the news media, he can't improve health care because the economy is in such poor shape. Instead, he should cut taxes -- while being careful not to target those tax cuts to the people who need it most.

So, basically, Barack Obama should approach his new job the way his predecessor has. That's the way to fix the economy and ensure continued popularity -- do what Bush would do.

We've seen what happens when the news media present a narrow band of opinion on a pressing issue, assuming that reasonable and serious thought exists only to the right of Joe Lieberman: We end up invading a country that didn't attack us, giving those who did time to regroup and regain strength. In the run-up to the Iraq war, television news all but ignored anti-war voices, even though a majority of congressional Democrats opposed giving President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq. It wasn't that long ago that prominent journalists were acknowledging that in addition to approaching the Bush administration's false claims about Iraq with inadequate skepticism, they gave short shrift to anti-war voices.

Yet rather than learn from their mistakes -- mistakes that have had catastrophic consequences -- much of the media are repeating them, once again ignoring opinions and policy proposals that they consider too liberal to be taken seriously. The media offer no shortage of airtime to conservatives who argue that this time cutting taxes for the wealthy and relying on the markets will finally create their Randian utopia. It's about time they devote as much coverage to ideas and people who haven't proved to be spectacular failures.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.