Villager thinking gone horribly awry

VILLAGER THINKING GONE HORRIBLY AWRY…. Time‘s Mark Halperin does a short video every morning, highlighting “three things to watch for in politics today.” If you want to know what media establishment figures will be “buzzing” about on any given day, Halperin’s short clips — they usually run about a minute — offer a big hint.

Yesterday’s edition was especially illustrative of how political analysis often goes horribly awry.

Halperin was joined by MSNBC’s Louis Burgdorf, and they agreed about the “big story.” As Halperin explained, “All this dialog, this debate, about whether Obama’s trying to do too much.” Burgdorf added some advice about what the president can and should do:

“If Obama comes out and says, ‘Listen, I’m going to move all these other things aside, shift my focus mainly to the economy,’ and take all these other things, put them aside — not forget about them — just really use all his efforts there, I think it’ll make a big difference. Instill some confidence in the consumer and people investing.”

When Halperin suggested that the president might want to “cancel the stem-cell event” at the White House, in order to demonstrate his focus on the economy, Burgdorf responded, “No, I think that’s important.” Immediately after saying Obama should “put aside” everything unrelated to the economy, Burgdorf said opening up stem-cell research is a good move, in part because his step-mother has multiple sclerosis.

Matt Cooper noted, “The whole conversation seemed slightly ridiculous.”

Presidents obviously do more than one thing at a time. No one asked Reagan to ignore the Cold War and focus on the recession.

Yes, a president can wander too far afield. If Obama suddenly devoted significant energy to a border dispute between Columbia and Venezuela or a revamp of the Law of the Sea Treaty that would be a distraction from the pressing matters facing the country. But to sign an executive order reversing George W. Bush on stem cells and to do an event publicizing the new order seems eminently reasonable in a country where so many are looking to embryonic stem cell research to improve their lives. And, of course, many of the things that may seem like a distraction — health care, green energy — are inextricably linked to the economic health of the country. You can disagree with Obama’s policies but to talk about distraction seems like a misunderstanding of what presidents do.

Quite right. The meme is steadily becoming a favorite of the media establishment — conservatives have been pushing the “distraction” line pretty aggressively, and reporters have been picking up on it — but it’s based on odd and flawed assumptions.

This notion that the president is “trying to do too much” also misses the policy point of the administration’s agenda. Obama would no doubt love to take these crises one at a time. If these different moving parts — economic growth, health care, energy, education, infrastructure — weren’t interconnected, I’m sure the president would gladly go slower.

What’s more, Burgdorf’s argument that consumer and investor “confidence” would get a boost if the president devoted 100% of his waking hours to overseeing the economy is just silly. Consumer and investor confidence is weak because the economy is in the toilet, not because the president took a few minutes to sign an executive order on medical research.