Obama, the Great Wealth Creator?
In early March, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank to about 6,500, CNBC stock analyst Jim Cramer blamed Barack Obama for “the greatest wealth destruction” ever, citing declines in “all indices, since the inauguration of the President,” an attack theme that resonated across the right-wing and much of the mainstream U.S. news media.
The numbers were hard to refute. When Obama became President a little over one month earlier, the Dow was at about 8,000, meaning Obama had presided over a decline of nearly 20 percent. But Cramer’s analysis was unfair and – from the perspective of only four months later – clearly wrong.
Indeed, if one wanted to label Obama a “great wealth destroyer” for the stock market slide early in his presidency, it would only seem fair to call him now a “great wealth creator,” because the Dow passed the 9,000 mark last week, representing almost a 40 percent rise from the March lows.
But don’t be surprised that Cramer, his CNBC buddies and the rest of the U.S. media aren’t rushing to give the President any credit for the turnaround. This blame game only goes one way.
Cramer’s analysis in March said Obama’s budget sowed “massive fear and indecision” with proposals to raise taxes on the rich, reform health care and press for a cap-and-trade policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Obama has undeniably made things worse by creating an atmosphere of fear and panic rather than an atmosphere of calm and hope,” wrote Cramer. “He's done it by pushing a huge amount of change at a very perilous moment. …
“We had a banking crisis coming into this regime, but now every area is in crisis. Each day is worse than the previous one for this miserable economy.”
Well, it’s turned out that not every day has been worse than the previous one, at least not for the stock markets. Despite continued problems, especially the unemployment rate rising to 9.5 percent, the economy began to show signs that the recession was ending – and the bulls returned to the markets.
Blaming Obama for the stock slide at the start of his presidency was unfair for another reason. The markets had been falling since October 2007 when the Dow was over 14,000 and the mortgage crisis began.
The resulting fallout from toxic assets based on risky mortgages brought down Wall Street banks like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Panicked investors watched as trillions of dollars of wealth disappeared and – by September 2008 – Bush administration officials were warning of a cataclysm that could be worse than the Great Depression.
There were plenty of causes for the catastrophe. President George W. Bush – with his rhetorical commitment to “free-market” principles – was slow to react, and lax regulation by his administration and its Clinton predecessors contributed to the mess, as did Wall Street’s addiction to obscene levels of compensation when bankers took risky bets.
But the U.S. news media always shied away from demanding much accountability of Bush. Mainstream journalists have long understood that their careers could be put in jeopardy if they are deemed to show any “liberal bias.” So – with a few exceptions – careerist journalists tilt to the Right, taking a tougher line on Democrats than on Republicans.
Same Old Patterns
This pattern has continued into the Obama administration, with the powerful right-wing media baiting mainstream reporters for supposedly being “in the tank for Obama.” The predictable reaction has been for mainstream journalists to consistently create negative news frames around Obama and his policies.
So, when Obama pushed for a $787 billion stimulus plan, it was treated as too big and too bloated – at least until the discouraging GDP numbers rolled in for late last year and suddenly the package was too small and too modest.
When the New York Times and the Washington Post wrote about the stunning 6.2 percent decline in the gross domestic product for the fourth quarter of 2008, their stories focused on Obama’s inadequate policies, without mentioning that Bush was President for the entire fourth quarter.
More recently, the national media’s take on the stimulus plan has been that it was “a failure” because unemployment numbers have continued to rise, rather than taking note of how much worse the situation might have been if nothing had been done.
Blood was spilling into the water for other parts of Obama’s agenda, too.
Watching CNN or reading the Washington Post’s op-eds, one detects almost excitement over the prospect that Obama’s health reform will fail. If anything does pass, the insiders have made clear that they favor the “bipartisan” bill being crafted by the Senate Finance Committee, hopefully sans the “public option” favored by Obama and many liberals.
CNN’s congressional correspondent Dana Bash and other journalists on a Sunday panel agreed that the only piece of legislation that mattered was the one before the Senate Finance Committee, ignoring the possibility that many liberals might well defect if the leadership pushes a version without a public option or a plan that looks like a giveaway to the insurance industry.
But these acting parts have become predictable for Washington’s performers. Indeed, there is a striking sense of déjà vu between what’s happening now and what occurred 16 years ago.
The Republicans are reprising their 1993-94 roles, sticking together to block any progressive legislation and wearing down any Democratic momentum. The right-wing media is again amplifying the GOP talking points, while the mainstream press follows those leads, albeit with a slightly more jaded tone.
For their part, today's Democrats are refusing to hold the Republicans accountable for past crimes and endlessly seeking the mirage of bipartisanship. Sixteen years ago, President Bill Clinton and congressional Democratic leaders turned away from investigations into abuses of Reagan-Bush-41 (such as Iran-Contra and Iraqgate), with the hope that there might be some Republican reciprocity.
Instead, the Republicans hyped (and invented) Clinton “scandals,” spreading suspicions about Clinton-related "mysterious deaths” and working with mainstream journalists to transform minor issues like the Clintons’ Whitewater investment into a major scandal.
Meanwhile, the Democrats plodded forward with tough congressional votes aimed at cleaning up the fiscal and economic mess that George H.W. Bush had left behind. First Lady Hillary Clinton gamely put forth a health reform plan that Republicans and their business allies picked apart and killed.
The stage was set for a historic Republican victory in 1994 and the ascension to power of George W. Bush six years later.
The parallels to today are unavoidable. Obama has shunned demands that Bush-43 and his aides be held accountable for torture and other crimes. Like Bill Clinton, Obama says he wants to look forward, not backward. Obama and the Democrats also have taken their lumps for bailing out Wall Street and passing a $787 billion stimulus package to jump-start a moribund economy.
Now, Obama’s health-care initiative is facing the same slow-bleed strategy that confronted Hillary Clinton’s plan. And on the scandal-mongering front, the Right – and its media allies, including CNN’s Lou Dobbs – have pushed suspicions about the validity of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate.
Whether Obama’s outcome also will parallel Bill Clinton’s damaged presidency depends on how much the Democrats have learned from the past 16 years. So far, it doesn’t appear they have learned much, and American progressives have done little to build a media infrastructure that can counter the dangerous media imbalance from the Right.
If that imbalance didn’t exist, you might be hearing as much about Obama “the Great Wealth Creator” as you heard a few months ago about Obama “the Great Wealth Destroyer.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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