While we had to wait until Election Night to find out that John Boehner eclipsed Nancy Pelosi, and that Harry Reid withstood Sharron Angle, one politician’s success was pre-ordained by corporate media long before the votes were cast: Herbert Hoover.
Although pundits rarely if ever named the long-dead former president as a winner of the midterms, the way they framed the election made it inevitable that his once-discredited policy of responding to economic crisis with austerity would come out on top on Election Day.
That framing was perhaps best summarized the day after the election by the New York Times’ Peter Baker (11/3/10): “Was this the natural and unavoidable backlash in a time of historic economic distress, or was it a repudiation of a big-spending activist government?” The “left” pole of debate is that bad economic times were something that just happened to the Democrats, and there was nothing they could have done to improve them.
Progressive economists, though, maintain there is plenty more that could have been done to bolster the recovery—from passing a bigger stimulus bill to “printing money” (Paul Krugman, New York Times, 1/9/09; Dean Baker, Guardian, 10/12/10). As long as there is insufficient private demand to make use of idle workers and factories, the Keynesian thinking goes, government spending can increase employment without sparking inflation—though many economists believe that a slightly higher rate of inflation would benefit the economy as well (Economist, 2/15/10).
Such solutions are unappealing to the business class that owns and funds most U.S. media outlets, however; in the simplest terms, policies that increase the money supply are not in the interests of those who currently have plenty of money. With notable exceptions like New York Times columnist Krugman, the U.S. media discussion treated a left critique of Obamanomics as beyond the pale, leaving the Tea Party’s calls for slashing “big government” as the sole proposal for improving the dismal job situation.
Having thus truncated voters’ options for action, pundits and reporters frequently translated their concern about jobs into concern about the deficit—even though the mechanism by which cutting government spending in a recession would reduce employment is necessarily unclear.
“The federal deficit has emerged as a chief concern for voters,” declared New York Times reporter Matt Bai (6/17/10), who later (9/9/10) explained that the Obama administration failed to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects “largely because the public never seemed open to the idea of huge new spending.” The Times’ Jackie Calmes (10/26/10) wrote of “a midterm campaign that has turned heavily on the issue of the mounting federal debt.”
A Washington Post story (5/19/10) likewise described “voters up in arms over the mounting federal debt.” The Post’s Lori Montgomery (6/19/10) acknowledged that many economists saw additional stimulus as vital to the recovery, but countered that “a competing threat—the exploding federal budget deficit—seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.” The Post (10/10/10) later identified the “overarching theme of election 2010” as a “question of how big the government should be and how far it should reach into people’s lives.”
Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift wrote a piece (Newsweek.com, 10/15/10) with the subhead “How Did a Concept as Unsexy and Complicated as the National Deficit Become the Galvanizing Political Issue of the Day?” “Why is the deficit the top issue in voters’ minds?” asked Clift, answering herself: “The deficit is really a symbol for the anger that people feel about the amount of money that has been poured into the economy, without any tangible returns that they can see in their own pocketbooks.”
But the assertion that the deficit is the voters’ “top issue” or a “chief concern” is contradicted by much of the polling data. One Gallup survey (6/17/10), for example, found that 60 percent of the public approved of “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy.” Bloomberg (12/10/09) summarized one of its polls, “Americans want their government to create jobs through spending on public works, investments in alternative energy or skills training for the jobless.”
A New York Times story (9/16/10) on a poll taken at the height of the election season observed, “The economy and jobs are increasingly and overwhelmingly cited by Americans as the most important problems facing the country, while the federal budget deficit barely registers as a topic of concern when survey respondents were asked to volunteer their worries.”
One of the few polls to ask people to choose between jobs and the deficit directly (CBS/NYT, 4/5-12/10) found 50 percent agreeing that “the federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit”; only 42 percent chose deficit reduction over stimulus.
It’s true that CNN’s exit poll found slightly more voters choosing “reducing deficit” (39 percent) than “spending to create jobs” (37 percent) as the “highest priority for next Congress.” But exit polls reflect only the views of those who have been motivated to vote; if the same electorate had voted in 2008, CNN found, John McCain would have gotten the same percentage of the vote as Barack Obama. While election analysis tends to treat voters as the only citizens whose views matter, the issues that turn voters into non-voters can do as much or more to influence election outcomes.
Media analyses pointed to Obama’s deficit commission as the logical path to fulfilling the electorate’s supposedly fervent wish for deficit cutting. As USA Today (11/5/10) editorialized after the vote:
At the end of this month, a presidential commission on the deficit is expected to vote on recommendations for ending Washington’s red-ink addiction. Obama could take the commission’s ideas, regardless of whether they are backed by the supermajority necessary to formally propose them to Congress, and run with them.
While the group deliberately delayed its recommendations until after the election, comments from the group made it clear that Social Security would be a prime target of its spending-reduction mission. In a piece published a week before the election (10/27/10), the Washington Post’s Mont-gomery quoted commission member Judd Gregg, a Republican senator from New Hampshire: “This is an election that’s going to have a very clear message: Do something about the deficit and debt.... I think the American people are going to send a very clear message.”
It was clear, at any rate, what message corporate media were going to hear—regardless of what signal voters intended to send.