Monday, July 25, 2011

Shaping the debate, late

President Obama tonight made his case to the American people on the way forward in resolving the debt ceiling crisis-in-waiting. In his 15-minute address from the East Room of the White House, the president shrewdly exploited the power of modern communications, taking a page from the Howard Beale Playbook of populist activism.

Anyone who remembers the pivotal 1976 Sidney Lumet film “Network” recalls the scene in which Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” expresses his displeasure with a planned foreign takeover of his network’s parent company. In one of many fits of pique, Beale calls on his viewers to make clear their opposition, and his own, where it counted: “I want you to send a telegram to the White House! By midnight tonight, I want a million telegrams in the White House. I want them wading KNEE-DEEP in telegrams at the White House!”

Tonight, President Obama adopted a similar strategy, invoking tweets and e-mails instead of telegrams, calling on Americans to Call a Congressperson to express their feelings about the merits of a balanced approach to resolving the deficit. The Huffington Post reported that the Web servers for some members of Congress began crashing shortly after the speech. Politico reported that “websites for Hill leaders have been down and other Congressional sites have been on the fritz, including the House Democrats' Budget Committee site. The New York delegation's sites have been down, also.”

Discounting the possibility of this being an Assangist action or a vast national prank, it was clear that — on a spot flashmob basis, at any rate — the president had struck some raw nerve in the body politic. It was obvious the president could still frame the debate in stark, inescapable terms and summon some not-insignificant slice of the American people to action. What was less obvious, then and now, is what took him so long to do it.

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In terms more practical than apocalyptic, Obama pushed back against the short-term solution now being considered by the House. “Defaulting on our obligations is a reckless and irresponsible outcome to this debate,” he said tonight. “And Republican leaders say that they agree we must avoid default. But the new approach that Speaker Boehner unveiled today, which would temporarily extend the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts, would force us to once again face the threat of default just six months from now. In other words, it doesn’t solve the problem.

“First of all, a six-month extension of the debt ceiling might not be enough to avoid a credit downgrade and the higher interest rates that all Americans would have to pay as a result. We know what we have to do to reduce our deficits; there’s no point in putting the economy at risk by kicking the can further down the road.

“But there’s an even greater danger to this approach. Based on what we’ve seen these past few weeks, we know what to expect six months from now. The House will once again refuse to prevent default unless the rest of us accept their cuts-only approach. Again, they will refuse to ask the wealthiest Americans to give up their tax cuts or deductions. Again, they will demand harsh cuts to programs like Medicare. And once again, the economy will be held captive unless they get their way.

That is no way to run the greatest country on Earth.”

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"The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government," Obama said just before the windup. "So I'm asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message."

The message was apparently sent; some offices in Congress may have been briefly knee-deep in webmasters earlier tonight. But what’s concerning is the message that was delivered before their messages were delivered. Obama basically distilled what most opinion polls, many in the media and the blognoscenti have been reporting and commenting on for months.

He gave us a reminder of how many times the debt ceiling had been raised pro forma under both Republican and Democratic administrations; he offered the obligatory dire forecast; he repeated a multitude of the talking points and commentary topics that have long formed more of the debate than the president may have realized.

Obama finally took the issue of a short-term extension directly to the American people tonight. What had been up to this point largely a debate for Washington insiders and pundits was now front and center in a  presidential bid to clarify the most pivotal financial issue the country faces.

But there’s that underlying question: Where ya been, B? Where was this clarity, this distillation before now? Judging from the unknown number of Americans who crashed the Capitol HIll servers tonight, has the president ever boiled this issue down so dramatically before?

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The president’s been slow on shaping the debate and articulating the urgency of the situation, or even grasping how the American people understand the situation. An embarrassing case in point: At one point tonight, Obama said “Now, what makes today’s stalemate so dangerous is that it has been tied to something known as the debt ceiling – a term that most people outside of Washington have probably never heard of before.”

That statement suggests how behind the curve the president has been in defining the issue, to himself if not for the public. The phrase “debt ceiling” has been in the informational ether for months now. Google lists 37.8 million search results for “debt ceiling” when the phrase is set off with isolating quote-mark operators. Web sites from OpenCongress to The Atlantic, from Bloomberg to ABC News were using it last fall, as columnists, economists, analysts and bloggers alike pondered the threat, first voiced by the Republican leadership, that preventing a raising of the debt ceiling limit would be their Job One in 2011.

A term that Americans “have probably never heard of before”? Those 37.8 million searches didn’t get there last week, Mr. President.

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But while the country grasps the enormity of the economic wall set to collapse on Aug. 2 if the United States defaults, the country’s also looking at this through a political lens. And as the Republicans overreach in Congress, they may be doing the same in their chances to regain the White House. A plurality of opinion polls are calling for a balanced approach to the deficit, including spending cuts and increased tax revenue. The approach long favored by the president.

Author and columnist Craig Crawford, on “Countdown” on Friday, explained the growing risk to Republicans the longer the debt-ceiling standoff continues. “We’re at a stage, Keith, where a lot of Americans who haven’t been paying attention to this very much are now tuning in,” Crawford said.

Cue the Web server crashes three nights later.

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Crawford’s observation just confirms, of course, what we know of the power of social media, the Internet and modern teleculture generally. President Obama appropriated its power effectively, if belatedly, tonight. He may have been late to the dance, but at least he showed up. The Republicans? Not so much.

Right now they’re are poised, despite their best intentions (or maybe because of them), to be the villain in the piece as more Americans, as documented in the polls, catch on to what’s up.

“One rough indicator of that is that it’s showing up on the late-night talk-show monologues,” Crawford said Friday.

“And as they look at this … they’re seeing a president who’s trying to be reasonable and compromising, and Republicans who are acting like kamikaze pilots. ...”

“[President Obama is] aggravating the heck out of the left to gain the middle, but the Republicans are pandering to the right and scaring the middle. So the political calculation for me is, they’re the big losers down the road.”

Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. Crawford: Current TV.

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