A Beltway Villager’s Bad Advice for Obama

220px-Chris_Cillizza_2012_05At some point people started referring to lazy Beltway pundits and reporters as members of a “Village.” The Villagers all spout the same center-right talking points and the usual warmed-over conventional wisdom.

One such Villager, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza, wrote a piece today (2/11/13) giving Barack Obama some advice on what to say in tomorrow’s State of the Union address. And his advice is perfect Village conventional wisdom: Obama should talk about the deficit.

The article almost reads like a parody of Beltway punditry. Under the subhead, “It’s the deficit, stupid,” Cillizza complains:

In 2012, Obama spent just five minutes on the debt–less time than he spent on partisanship (5  and a half minutes) or foreign policy (six minutes).

He should flip that script in this State of the Union and spend the bulk of his time talking about the deficit.

Why on Earth would he do this? Because, Cillizza says, it’s what the people want–according to a new Pew poll, 72 percent of Americans think reducing the deficit should be a “top priority.” As he writes:

The debt is the issue of the day, and one that, if Obama is beginning to eye his legacy as president, could go a long way toward shaping how history remembers him. Make this speech a deficit speech.

But if you really wanted to give a speech based on that Pew poll–a weird idea to begin with–then you’d spend more time talking about “strengthening economy” and “improving  job situation,” since those both rank higher than deficit reduction. While we’re at it, we could point out that those who regard deficit reduction as “the issue of the day” should also make abundantly clear that the near-term deficit is actually shrinking.

You know who else does polling that asks voters about their chief economic concerns? Cillizza’s paper. Why didn’t he cite the Washington Post polling, then? Perhaps because it would undermine his case. When the Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll (8/21/12) asked which economic issue concerned Americans most, the results showed jobs and healthcare were most pressing than the deficit, as the graphic below indicates. 


And there’s very likely to be some conflict between deficit reduction and strengthening the economy;  reducing unemployment could very well require increasing government spending, which in turn would increase the deficit. To people like Cillizza, reducing the deficit is almost always the urgent concern of the day; spending more to fight unemployment would, according to this worldview, be a big mistake.

The real lesson about a poll like Pew’s–which asks people to name “top priorities” for the president–is that people think about what they’re told to think about. Which is why terrorism and Social Security’s financial stability rank right behind deficit. (J. Mijin Cha of Demos wrote a great piece recently about how the deficit is of special concern among the wealthy)

 Cilliza also has advice about what the article calls “pet issues” like gun control and climate change:  Don’t talk about them much, and you can only really pick one. Why? Because that Pew poll tells us that these issues are of no concern to the public:

Of 21 issues tested, global warming ranked dead last among those priorities, while strengthening gun laws came in 18th and illegal immigration 17th.

And yet, that trio of issues–along with the economy–has been at the forefront of political and policy discussions in Washington over the past few months. (Circumstances obviously matter here; the shootings in Newtown, Conn., thrust gun laws into a spotlight they would never have had if that tragedy had not happened.)

What that discrepancy should tell Obama is that he needs to tread carefully on those issues in his State of the Union speech, and beyond. While most people would like to see all of them addressed, none are even close to the priority of fixing the economy or reducing the debt. And so, Obama would be smart to pick one–guns seems by far the most likely–and spend real time on it in the speech, with only a passing reference or two to the others.

OK, so to sum up: Obama should talk a lot about the deficit, but address the “pet issue” of the fate of the planet “with only a passing reference.” 

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.