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 (8/21/12) 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 columnist and 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 today (Gallup.com), 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, 1/2/12): "Yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap."
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 (7/7/12) referred to "Obama's apparent ability to defy economic gravity." The Washington Post (8/6/12) called it a "contest that, so far, defies nature." USA Today's story 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/ABC News poll (5/11/12) 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 offer."
Actually, though, 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, 7/13/10); 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, 3/18/12), 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 Eastwood.
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 things happened."
And Washington Post columnist EJ 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 lower."
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!.