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As the Dow Gyrates, the Media's Snap Judgments on Obama Rise

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has jousted with media critics like CNBC's Rick Santelli, right.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has jousted with media critics like CNBC's Rick Santelli, right. (J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

As the Dow embarked on a long slide after Inauguration Day -- a nearly 2,000-point slide, to be precise -- the drumbeat seemed to grow louder.

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"There's no confidence in Obama's plan," said Fox's Sean Hannity. "The markets respond to data. They have no confidence."

"The stock market is also demonstrating a lack of confidence in the president's big government agenda," said CNN's Lou Dobbs.

And it's not just those on the right. CNBC's Jim Cramer -- an unabashed Democrat -- complained that President Obama's "radical agenda" was causing the "greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president."

But is it fair to hurl such charges at a president who's been in office for less than eight weeks? Isn't Obama trying to dig out from the huge economic mess left by his predecessor?

The chatter reflects a fast-forward culture that demands snap judgments. The cable news channels, not content to wait for the traditional 100-day benchmark -- itself an artificial media construct -- were grading Obama last week on his 50-day performance.

"Fixing the economy is not a television-friendly story," says Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer. "A plane crash in the Hudson where everyone survives is a television-friendly story. This is a slog."

The debate is also a barometer of the pain that millions of Americans are feeling as their nest eggs and retirement funds shrink dramatically. The Dow opened at 9625 on the day Obama was elected, at 7949 on the day he took office, and closed at 6547 last Monday.

Of course, Obama's detractors didn't credit his policies when the index rebounded to 7224 by Friday. Republicans on yesterday's talk shows shifted their attack to the overall economy, with House GOP Whip Eric Cantor saying on "Meet the Press" that there is a "lack of confidence" in the administration. Christina Romer, chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, said that "of course the fundamentals are sound," prompting host David Gregory to observe that she and the president now seem to be echoing what John McCain said during the campaign.

Former Business Week editor Steve Shepard dismisses the notion of attributing sharp declines in the Dow to a new president.

"To pin the blame on him is just fundamentally unfair and wrong," says Shepard, now dean of the City University of New York's journalism school. "It's the party line of the Wall Street Journal editorial page." While there is "a germ of truth" in the criticism -- Shepard says that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner unveiled a "half-baked" bank bailout plan -- "the decline of the market since Obama took office is largely related to the deepening of the economic disaster."

The Dow's swoon began in the last 18 months of the Bush administration, after the index peaked at 14164. Serwer says the crisis was "a generation in the making" and furthered by the Bush administration's "malignant neglect."


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