Dept. of Forest, trees

DEPT. OF FOREST, TREES…. Fred Barnes writes in his latest Weekly Standard column that the political world has learned quite a bit from “last week’s unanimous rejection of the Democratic stimulus package by House Republicans.” Like what? “We learned Republicans, though they can’t win a vote, can win an argument,” Barnes argues.

The substance of this is, of course, more than a little ridiculous. That said, even President Obama is reportedly “frustrated by the public perception that the recovery bill was becoming laden with partisan pet projects.”

It’s easy to share in that frustration. Much of the media’s coverage has not only been slanted, it’s also been frequently wrong. At this point, the public overwhelmingly wants Congress to pass a stimulus bill, but 38% support Obama’s proposal as is, while 37% want to see “major” changes.

Those are the kind of numbers one might expect when conservatives — on the Hill and on the airwaves — are driving the discussion, pointing to cherry-picked “wasteful” spending. Stepping back and looking at the big picture, Josh Marshall notes that it’s easy to understand why “Republicans are having such a field day spreading disinformation and simple nonsense about this bill,” and what the White House has to do about it.

We’ve heard virtually nothing over the last couple weeks about the big issue, which is that the economy is in severe free-fall because of a once-in-a-century financial crisis. And because of that, the federal government needs to step in with big short term spending to create jobs to see us through the crisis. Those jobs are needed in the short-term to prevent unemployment from getting out of hand and in the longer term to reshape the economy so that we’re not dependent on recurrent bubbles to keep the economy afloat. This is an emergency jobs bill. And it costs a lot of money because we’re in a deep crisis. But this basic point has disappeared almost entirely from the public debate.

ThinkProgress has admirably demonstrated that the cable networks continue to tip the scales in favor of Republicans by booking like twice or even three times as many Republicans as Democrats to discuss the Stimulus Bill. But that only tells us what we already know, which is that the Washington press establishment is still wired for Republicans. But there is a Democratic president. And he does have the bully pulpit. And he needs to make this argument, which he’s not. Absent that, we can’t be surprised and the Democrats are not in much of a position to complain if the vacuum is filled by a bunch of Republicans making statements that are either demonstrable nonsense or just lies.

Look at what people are talking about and you wouldn’t get the sense that we’re actually in the midst of a major economic crisis that will likely send unemployment well into double digits if nothing is done quickly — and a crisis that is in large measure the result of the economic policies that the Boehners and Cantors and McConnells are telling us, all the evidence to the contrary, will now save us. Everyone who’s taking this situation seriously realizes that spending is the pivotal part of what the government needs to do to stabilize the economy in the face of this crisis. […]

Without a clear argument about why this whole exercise is necessary, it’s inevitable that the debate will be ground down to the inconsequential minutiae which is the aim of its opponents. Big things need a president to argue for them.

Fortunately, it appears President Obama agrees with this, and will do interviews tonight with ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and Fox News to discuss his proposal. The interviews are apparently being done now, for broadcast this evening.

The president will no doubt face some inane questions about random provisions that have sparked Republican ire. It’ll be Obama’s job to draw attention to the forest, not the trees.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation