Monday, August 30, 2010

Catering to the Dysfunctional Poltical Press

Michael Tomasky argues that the Obama team needs to take its show on the road, arguing that President Obama should have given his speech in support of aid to small businesses in North Carolina instead of from the Rose Garden:
You wouldn't know it from the media, but there's an incumbent GOP senator down there, Richard Burr, who is vulnerable and actually in danger of losing his seat to a Democrat. Not only a Democrat, a woman Democrat. The race is within the margin of error. I know nothing of Elaine Marshall, said Dem, but she seems to be running a decent race and has a nice smile.

So why not go down to North Carolina, help Ms. Marshall, round up a few small business owners who would be getting those checks just like Ms. Kaur of Oregon would, and say: "Elaine Marshall and I want to give Mr. Gibbons here his check. Richard Burr doesn't. I want everyone in North Carolina and America to know that: the Republicans are holding up this money, because they think humiliating me is more important than helping you. Now you may not love me, and that's your right, but by God I'm here arguing your case, and Richard Burr is playing games." And such like.
Is the problem really simply venue, or is Tomasky highlighting a weakness of the nation's media? Unless you believe that tens of thousands of entrepreneurs are going to crowd into a North Carolina venue to listen to the President, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people will hear his message on TV.

I personally don't believe that "He was in my state when he said that" is particularly resonant. That is, I don't believe that any appreciable numbers of North Carolina business owners are going to become Obama converts because he makes a speech in their state as opposed to the Rose Garden.

The difference would seem to be that the media treats a President's road trip and statements differently - something that G.W. seemed to appreciate - and thus you can get more national coverage for a speech if you contrive a "local" event, ideally with a bunch of firefighters, men in hard hats, or soldiers strategically positioned as a backdrop.

You may be right that the Obama team should exploit that tendency, but I'm not sure that it says anything good about our nation's media or political culture.

I'm sure many people would regard Tomasky as "merely being realistic", but even as he acknowledges that our political system is "broken" his comments remind me of his preference to postpone healthcare reform:
But of course, as my regular readers know, I basically agreed with [Rahm] Emanuel [who opposed Obama's pursuit of healthcare reform]. Actually my position would have been different from his, too: fix the economy first, put healthcare off entirely until year three, after the economy was in good shape and some trust in the administration had been established.
I appreciate that Tomasky wasn't willing to put healthcare reform off forever, but we're about to enter year three - how much of a chance do you suppose healthcare reform would have had if introduced next year? Is there any reason to believe that we would have a better economy or would have had a larger stimulus bill in the absence of a healthcare reform bill? I would argue, absolutely not. The stimulus bill passed first. Had Emanuel and Tomasky had his way, we would likely be waiting another twenty years for another Democratic president to be positioned to try to introduce reform legislation - and their advice to that President would likely be exactly the same - "Do it later."

From my perspective, it would be nice if the political press did a better job calling out Republican obstructionism, identifying the role of money and favors in the positions of both political parties and their members, and analyzing policy instead of focusing on the horse race - the often ugly political process and worry about future elections. I would like to see a poltical party, particularly one as well-positioned to use its majority as the Dems were after the last election, set aside greed, avarice, and other self-interest in order to fashion and implement a serious set of solutions to the nation's most pressing issues. I have no reason to believe that either will happen.

The President has been criticized for cutting a variety of deals with industry groups that weakened healthcare reform at the outset. Yet industry groups almost killed reform anyway with the eager help of pliant Senators. President Obama was criticized by Harry Reid for not doing enough to support him as he supposedly tried to win majority support in the Senate for the reform bill. But if Harry Reid was serious about passing healthcare reform yet nonetheless permitted the repeated delays, incompetent bargaining with the Republicans, and an array of ugly compromises that weakened the bill and the party, it isn't apparent how Obama could have helped somebody so ineffectual. Seriously, it smacks of "Obama got rid of all of the major roadblocks for me, but he didn't change the grade so my job would merely involve coasting downhill."

It can't really be a surprise that, despite the passage of "historic" legislation, the focus on process has negatively affected public perceptions of Congress, the legislation, and many legislators. Perhaps that's fair. But what seems to get overlooked is that when parts of the media (even if it calls itself "news entertainment" instead of actual news) intentionally distorts the debate, and the rest prefers to advance horse race stories (even if some good, substantive analysis is available below the fold), we're going to end up with a weaker bill. That applies in pretty much any context, not just healthcare reform.

I have no problem with the President taking his show on the road from time to time. But I do have a problem with the idea that the media will treat the President's policy proposals differently, or give more complete coverage to how they affect local interests, if he happens to speak at a factory, VFW hall, military base, or other "local" venue.

Update: Tomasky writes,
In political terms, healthcare reform was for liberals only, basically. I think it will benefit the broader country and most people will come to see that - if it survives, which is now a fairly serious question. But I can see how your average middle-of-the-road person thought, why's he doing that when unemployment is going up like it is?
If you view healthcare reform as the President trying to 'pay off' his supporters, as opposed to trying to tackle a serious issue for the betterment of the nation, Obama and the Dems certainly fumbled the ball. Is it really "all about elections"? Should it be?

Frankly, at the time the Dems took on healthcare reform they had passed the stimulus bill, a measure intended to reduce unemployment (and that did so, albeit to an inadequat extent), and Tomasky believes there was no realistic chance of passing a larger bill, so other than waving his hands or making public expressions like, "I feel your pain," what is it that Tomasky imagines that President Obama could have done to reduce unemployment? And when can we expect to enter an era when our nation has no other pressing concerns that he, let alone opponents of reform, won't deem "more important" than healthcare reform?
I'll put in another pitch here for my trinity of education, broadband and innovation: three more-or-less non-ideological but still very important policy goals the administration could have pursued early on instead of healthcare.
But here's the thing: The President is tacking education, and the public at large doesn't care. I also disagree with Tomasky's premise that health insurance distracts from policies to advance innovation - I personally believe access to quality, affordable health insurance even if you're self-employed or a small employer, and stabilizing healthcare inflation, are extremely important to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.

Broadband? "A computer on every desk, a wireless router in every home"? Where have I heard something like that before. If this survey is accurate, about 60% of households, and about 86% of households with Internet access, already have broadband. So the nation invests money in broadband by, let's say, subsidizing telephone and cable companies, and that brings about what material improvement or change? Would it be like extending telephone access to rural areas, something we still subsidize through taxes but most people aren't aware of, or would it be characterized as a new form of welfare - "Why do they get free computers or cheap Internet when I had to work for mine?" Seriously, if the idea behind this initiative is to produce votes, where will they come from? If it's to reduce unemployment or boos the economy, how and when?

As for "innovation", the President can talk about the importance of innovation, small business, entrepreneurs... but it's just talk. How would such talk translate into action, and how would it bring about results sufficiently quickly to improve the economic situation? Yes, I support innovation, the development of educational models that help foster creativity and innovation, renewed investment in post-secondary education to both improve and ensure that potential innovators will have the quality of education and resources they need, etc. - but even if we start taking action, we're talking about a project that will span decades, aren't we?

Tomasky's policy priorities seem, to me, to translate into words over action. Punting on every difficult issue facing the nation. Perhaps, at least in normal times, that's a recipe for winning reelection. But, even considering the possibility of policy errors, I personally don't see that approach as being beneficial to the country.

1 comment:

  1. I like your article and i agree with your views.... thanks for sharing.