Thursday, August 13, 2009

Our Media: No Detail, Please

A few weeks ago, MSNBC's First Read had an item questioning whether President Obama "knows too much" about health care policy. The piece complained that the president is willing to offer Americans details about reform, which means going "into the weeds."

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman raised a similar concern today, arguing that Obama cares too much about policy details.

"President Obama, not only does he want to hear about the unemployment rates -- he wants to hear about the U6, the underemployment rate! A few weeks ago, they were talking about child obesity rates, and what to do about childhood nutrition. These things go into the weeds."

This, apparently, is criticism, not praise. The president who inherited a devastating economic crisis is interested in U6 numbers -- a measure that includes the unemployed, those who are working part-time but want full-time employment, and those who've simply given up -- and this, we're told, is somehow evidence of excessive interest in detail.

It's an odd complaint. When the president goes beyond poll-tested soundbites, he's going "into the weeds." When the president wants a more reliable measurement of the employment landscape, he's gone "into the weeds." When the president can speak about childhood nutrition, he's gone "into the weeds."

Dan Froomkin has this just right.

There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to be concerned about Obama's approach to governing.

But particularly after the presidency of George W. Bush, who so often seemed detached both from details and reality, Obama's intellectual curiosity is one thing journalists in particular should celebrate, not sneer at. It's the know-nothings we should be exposing, not the know-somethings.

I can't help but wonder if there's some kind of resentment, for lack of a better word, among reporters who are annoyed by Obama's attention to detail. Perhaps they'd prefer a more superficial president because they have a more superficial perspective?

Yglesias: What Caused the Budget Deficit?

David Leonhardt has a nice article breaking down the sources of the growth in the budget deficit. Since Leonhardt works for The New York Times rather than USA Today, they didn’t see fit to illustrate his article with a pie chart, but I made one myself:


— “The first category — the business cycle — accounts for 37 percent of the $2 trillion swing.”

— Second, Bush-era legislation “like his tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, [that] not only continue to cost the government but have also increased interest payments on the national debt.”

— Third, “Obama’s main contribution to the deficit is his extension of several Bush policies, like the Iraq war and tax cuts for households making less than $250,000 [...] 20 percent of the swing.”

— Fourth, “About 7 percent comes from the stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed in February.”

— Fifth, “only 3 percent comes from Mr. Obama’s agenda on health care, education, energy and other areas.”

In other words, the very high deficits are not Obama’s fault according to any normal way of assessing political blame. That said, large deficits aren’t a moral failing that we need to hold someone accountable for. Rather, they’re a potential future practical problem that will have to be solved. Doing that will probably require a mixture of higher taxes, somewhat more hard-core health care reform that is likely to pass in 2009, and reductions in defense and possibly Social Security outlays. I don’t really find it especially surprising or alarming that nobody wants to vote for any of those things in 2009. After all, nobody who has to stand for election really wants to do any of that stuff. And the deficit isn’t a problem in 2009 and almost certainly won’t be in 2010. The main issue is whether Congress will be prepared to take tough measures when and if doing so actually proves necessary. Meanwhile, the health reforms being debated in congress will get us some of the way to where we need to be, and also hopefully lay the groundwork for further measures if the best hopes about what’s currently on the table don’t wind up materializing. The simple fact of the matter, after all, is that nobody really knows what the impact of something like comparative effectiveness research will be. It could save a lot of money, or it might not—we might just get healthier while spending a similar amount of money. But if we get it in place sooner rather than later, we’ll know and be in a position to act.

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