As Americans ponder how our politicians could have allowed “fiscal cliff” negotiations to drag on into the final day, it is clear that the mainstream media shares a significant part of the blame. There is no way that the impasse could have lasted this long if President Barack Obama felt a sense of responsibility to lead his government and his party–but instead he is able to enjoy the role of critic and spectator, thanks to media indulgence.
The media’s utter failure to hold President Obama to account was exemplified today on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in a report by Steve Inskeep and Scott Horsley. After the hosts mocked Congress for having “left another crisis to the last minute,” they discussed, without criticism, how Obama “doesn’t sound that worried” about going over the cliff. Likewise, the New York Daily News wrote: “Congress created the fiscal cliff.”
The “fiscal cliff” is not a problem that Congress created–not entirely, anyway. The big spending cuts to defense and entitlements–the so-called “sequester”–was proposed by the White House during debt ceiling talks in 2011. And President Obama himself extended the Bush tax cuts so they would expire at the end of 2012. In sum: The “fiscal cliff,” by design, is a bipartisan creation of both the legislative and executive branches.
It is worth reviewing the ways in which President Obama absented himself from the negotiations. He campaigned around the country for his proposal to let tax rates expire on households earning more than $250,000, rather than sitting down with congressional leaders. Last Friday’s meeting at the White House was the first in six long weeks–and failed to produce any new proposals from the President for solving the crisis.
In addition, President Obama delegated responsibility for the talks to various deputies–first Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and finally Vice President Joe Biden. On the final weekend before the deadline, the president did not offer an olive branch to his political adversaries, but took to the airwaves repeatedly to blame Republicans–again–for the impasse in Washington.
In typical negotiations, leaders of each side at the table typically seek to use their more radical supporters outside the room to make themselves appear more moderate–to show there are limits to what they can give away, and encourage the other side to come to an agreement. Beneath all of the diplomatic etiquette, emissaries seek to create the impression: “If you don’t make a deal with me, you’re going to have to deal with them.”
In the “fiscal cliff” talks, President Obama has played the role of one of the radicals outside the talks, making all sorts of threats and demands more extreme than those currently up for discussion. It has fallen to junior leaders to cast themselves as the “adults in the room”–though they have failed because they lack authority to reach an agreement. Throughout it all, the media has rarely offered any criticism of Obama’s role.
By allowing President Obama to abdicate–on the “fiscal cliff” as on many other issues–the mainstream media have allowed him to adopt an intransigent pose rather than take responsibility for the country’s fiscal and economic fate. In the process, the media has facilitated the hyper-partisan environment in Washington. And yet they attack Congress, willfully blind to their own failures. They are just as much a part of the problem.