Entry from February 17, 2009

This morning I heard the announcer on all-news WTOP, Washington’s top-rated radio station with a sterling reputation among both broadcasters and journalists, introduce a segment on the newly-passed 787 billion-dollar “stimulus” bill by saying that “the stakes could not be higher.” By this he must have meant — at least — that there was some great risk in its passage by Congress and signing by the President, and that the risk of its failure was proportional to the hope of its success. It seems to be a widely shared opinion, and it is certainly one shared by the President himself. But of course it is nonsense. There are an almost infinite number of ways in which the stakes could be higher. The survival of the American identity and way of life could be at stake, for instance, as it routinely is in those national security decisions that don’t seem to interest Mr Obama very much.

In fact, it would be truer to say that, at least in political terms, the stakes of the stimulus package could not be lower. If the economy revives — as it always has done sooner or later — the stimulus plan will naturally get the credit for it. And if the revival is prolonged beyond the fourth quarter of 2012, President Obama will still be able plausibly to represent its failure to revive as the fault of his predecessor. All he needs is the continued good will of the media, and does anyone seriously suppose that that is in jeopardy? His way with the media seems to be more winning even than Franklin Roosevelt’s, and Roosevelt managed to go on blaming Herbert Hoover for the failure of the New Deal to end the Depression through not one but two subsequent presidential election cycles.

As I have mentioned before, there are good reasons for thinking that President Obama is preparing the ground for just such an approach to his re-election now by stressing the awfulness, the near catastrophic nature of the crisis and the certain disaster it must give rise to without the immediate intervention of his good self and his salvific stimulus package to stave it off. In short, it is Mr Obama himself who is the first and the loudest to insist that the stakes are so enormously high, and the fearless independent journalist, all too typical of the breed, who is parroting this obvious falsehood and so contributing to the further and continuing mythologization of our “historic” president’s historic presidency.

An article in today’s RealClearPolitics by polling expert Stuart Rothenberg suggests not only that this official narrative of the “crisis” and the Obama administration’s response to it is a deliberate strategy but that it is finding a ready acceptance with the American people. Titled “Optimism About Obama Is the Only Optimism Out There,” Mr Rothenberg’s piece finds that the President’s job approval commands strong majorities even as pessimism about the economy is plumbing new depths. “The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index hit a 23-year low in early February,” he writes. “Over four weeks ending Feb. 8, 2009, only 4 per cent of the 1,000 adults surveyed rated the U.S. economy positively, while 96 percent rated it negatively.”

Why, “even [sic] Obama,” says Mr Rothenberg, “asserted that the country was in a ‘full-blown crisis,’ echoing his previous warnings since he won the presidency in November. Indeed, that assessment is the basis for his insistence on quick passage of a stimulus bill.” So that’s the basis, is it? It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the “full-blown crisis” might have been talked up in the first place to the extent that it was precisely because it was part of “his insistence on quick passage of a stimulus bill.” And because it might have been expected to produce precisely the polling result noticed by himself — namely, that the new President is getting all the public opinion benefit of confronting the crisis without any of the blame which traditionally accrues to presidents for causing it.

This can be explained by the fact that he is still very new in office, but it is a state of affairs which might be expected to continue over a longer period than it has with previous presidents — apart from FDR. As Mr Rothenberg puts it, “optimism about the President and his economic agenda seems to be based solely on his communication skills, his personal appeal and the public’s hope for a turnaround.” Oh, and one more thing he might have mentioned: the media’s determination to make their favorite the hero of the hour, no matter what happens.

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