I don’t want to overemphasize the importance of last night’s presidential press conference–which was ultimately positioning exercise by the president–and we’ve already published two posts on it. But it is worthwhile to pay some specific attention to the first two questions Obama fielded, which spoke volumes about how large elements of the news media are covering developments on the financial crisis and the budget, and how Obama critics are trying to frame the debate.
First up was Jennifer Loven of AP with this head-scratcher:
Your treasury secretary and the Fed chairman were on Capitol Hill today asking for this new authority that you want to regulate big, complex financial institutions.
But given the problems that the financial bailout program has had so far — banks not wanting to talk about how they’re spending the money, the AIG bonuses that you mentioned — why do you think the public should sign on for another new sweeping authority for the government to take over companies, essentially?
And then came NBC’s Chuck Todd:
Some have compared this financial crisis to a war. And in times of war, past presidents have called for some form of sacrifice.
Some of your programs, whether for Main Street or Wall Street, have actually cushioned the blow for those that were irresponsible during this — during this economic period of prosperity or supposed prosperity that you were talking about. Why, given this new era of responsible that you’re asking for, why haven’t you asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?
Obama answered these questions in the obvious way, telling Loven that it’s precisely the absence of such authority that’s made outrages like the AIG bonuses possible, and reminding Todd that “the public” is already sacrificing quite a lot, thank you very much. He also exhibited his famous cool by addressing Loven and Todd in a tone of mild surprise, without laughing out loud or exhibiting anger.
The more interesting aspect of the questions is the mindset they reflected. The planted axiom in Loven’s question was that government screwed up the bailout of financial institutions, and thus the immediate remedy is to reduce, not expand, the power of government. This assumption is central to the GOP’s effort to make “activist government,” not Wall Street, the villain of the story, and to shift the focus away from the causes of the financial conflagration to the would-be firefighters.
Todd’s question was a bit more subtle. In Washington-speak, calling for “sacrifices” by “the people” is code for going after government programs and/or tax benefits that are popular among the middle class. Indeed, “shared sacrifice” is often a euphemism for “entitlement reform,” particularly in the context of the budget. So asking Obama when he’s going to call for “sacrifices” is another way of suggesting that he’s taking the easy way out by expanding some government programs and leaving others alone, instead of “even-handedly” cutting everything. This is High Broderism at its most abstract.
I’m not necessarily accusing Loven or Todd of agreeing with those somewhat disguised assumptions: it’s legitimate in a press conference to raise often-heard criticisms of the convener, whether or not the reporter happens to agree with them. But it’s important to note that we’re going to hear variations on these two themes a lot in the future, whether they are expressed in GOP agitprop or in the loftiest prose of op-ed writers.