If there's one
thing the media seem
certain about this election season, it's that the choice between Barack
Obama and Mitt Romney will come down to one thing: the economy.
The "rhetorical debate question" from Ronald Reagan's debate with Jimmy Carter, USA Today
reported on its front page , "has become an iconic one for voters. Are
you better off than you were four years ago?" The paper cited polls
showing that 55 percent of Americans say they are not.
Considering that, you'd expect that the summer would have seen a barrage
of stories on the state of the economy, on the trials of the more than 8
percent of Americans who remain unemployed, and especially about how
well the two candidates' policies were likely to alleviate the nation's
economic woes. And yet, with few exceptions, the subject of the
economy--and more to the point, what can be done to fix it--was barely
addressed by major U.S. media over the summer, beyond occasional reports
on fluctuating employment figures.
Instead, the bulk
of economic coverage focused on the looming
debt crisis--not coincidentally, the one economic issue being raised
incessantly by the Romney campaign. (Obama's preferred summer topic--the
future of Medicare--received a similar flurry of coverage.)
"Presidents have been warning for decades of the dangers of this country's debt and deficits," noted Jake Tapper on ABC's This Week
(8/19/12). "But the big question: Is this time different? Is this the
year we finally start to get our nation's finances in order?" What
followed was a panel of current and former Washington officials (plus
one Wall Street Journal
anti-tax activist Grover Norquist) in which Tapper demanded that each
declare whether they were "optimistic" or "pessimistic" about bringing
down the federal debt.
Yet while majorities of Americans consistently rank either "the economy"
or "unemployment/jobs" as the most important problem facing the country
), the federal debt has struggled to break into double digits as a top problem.
Which is a reasonable assessment, given that--notwithstanding the
"fiscal cliff" that Congress imposed during last year's battle over the
nation's debt ceiling--the costs of high unemployment are far greater
than those of a rising national debt: As Paul Krugman argued (New York Times
"Yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need
more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment
If so, both
the Republican plan--which
would, under Paul Ryan's proposal, cut $2.2 trillion in federal
spending on domestic programs over the next decade--and the Democratic
plan, to stay the course with a fading stimulus after Obama's last jobs
bill was killed by Congress last fall, will do little to improve the
economy. Yet most reporters continued to paint the economic debate as
one over free spending vs. austerity--and then seemed puzzled that
voters aren't treating the election as a referendum on the same.
The Los Angeles Times
) referred to "Obama's apparent ability to defy economic gravity." The Washington Post
) called it a "contest that, so far, defies nature." USA Today
on poll results puzzled over the fact that many voters favored Obama
even though they thought they were worse off than before his presidency.
Of course, there could be many reasons why people would intend to vote
for Obama despite the economic situation: They could blame their job
woes on the economic crash that preceded his presidency; or they could
be displeased by his handling of the economy, but think Romney would do
an even worse job. (One Michigan woman told USA Today
that though she'd give Obama a "D" on the economy, "Is the economy
going to be better because Romney's in there? I don't know.")
When one Washington Post
found that 47 percent of registered voters regard the stimulus
favorably while 49 percent view it unfavorably, the poll didn't ask
whether whether respondents were displeased with the stimulus at all or
because it was insufficient to the task--yet the Post
still concluded that "the stimulus is clearly a dead end" as far as Obama being able to point to successful economic policies.
When Obama warned of Republican prescriptions of austerity to fix the economy, "We tried it, and didn't work," Washington Post
columnist Dan Balz (7/7/12
retorted, "But it has become increasingly difficult for Obama to argue
that what he has tried is working well, or that he has something new to
whether the Obama
stimulus worked is hardly an open question. The Congressional Budget
Office (5/25/12) determined that at the peak of stimulus spending in the
third quarter of 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had
created or preserved as many as 3.6 million jobs, almost exactly what
had been projected by Obama in 2009 (Politifact
by mid-2012, though more than 90 percent of ARRA money had been spent,
between 200,000 and 1.2 million people still owed their jobs to Obama's
policies. And a poll of economists across the political spectrum by the
Initiative on Global Markets (2/15/12) found that they agreed by a
20-to-1 margin that the stimulus had lowered the unemployment rate.
Of course, even 3.6 million jobs is far less than the estimated 8
million jobs that were lost in the economic crash. Meanwhile, few major
media reports have noted that the temporary boost from the federal
stimulus has been largely swamped by state and local spending cuts:
Counting state and local government, public sector jobs fell by 590,000
during Obama's first three years (Calculated Risk
), compared to significant increases during both George W. Bush's and Ronald Reagan's post-recession first terms.
Economic experts, though, were all too seldom called to comment on the
state of the economy in the news media. More typically, reporting
consisted of competing he-said-she-said claims by the two campaigns that
their candidate was best suited to resolving the economic crisis.
This was especially true on TV news talk shows, which often left it to
representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns to face off against
each other, with no outside critics or economic experts present (Face the Nation
, 7/15/12 and 8/12/12; This Week
, 7/29/12). On an ABC World News
"Your Voice, Your Vote" segment on the economy (8/4/12), the only
voices heard were those of Obama and Romney--plus noted everyman Clint
The limits of televised economic debate could be seen on ABC
's This Week
(7/8/12), which opened with George Will declaring: "It's quite clear
the president got terrible advice early in his administration. First,
his advisers said, we'll do this stimulus and it will never reach 8
percent. Forty-one weeks now--41 months over 8 percent." Chimed in U.S. News & World Report
editor Mort Zuckerman: "I think whatever has been tried, add a huge amount of deficit spending, has simply not worked."
Former Obama "car czar" Steve Rattner immediately agreed that "we have
to deal with the long-term deficit problem," but added, "I would argue
that the stimulus program, the financial rescue, the auto rescue all got
us in a much better place than we would have been had none of those
And Washington Post
Dionne pointed out that "from the beginning, the stimulus should have
been bigger. [Obama] cut it back partly to get votes in Congress.... If
you had simply the growth in government employment now that you had
under Ronald Reagan, the unemployment rate would probably be a point
It was a rare moment of actual debate about how public policy can
address economic problems. Or rather, how it could have been
addressed--at no point did anyone suggest that the White House should
now be looking at increased stimulus or government hiring to boost the
economy. Because if neither major party is proposing a policy idea, far
be it from the news media to recognize that it exists.
Neil deMause (@neildemause) is a contributing editor for City Limits,
and a frequent contributor to the Village Voice, Slate, and Extra!
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