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As Markets Fell, Pundits Came Down On Obama
President Gets Blame After Just 50 Days

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.

"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."

"Any president is going to be held responsible for the economy, but it's patently unfair to do it in such a short time frame." Still, he says, "in the 24-hour news cycle, you've got to have something to talk about."

The president, for his part, has likened the market swoon to the gyrations of political polls, saying that "buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it."

The White House hasn't been shy about firing back at the critics. After Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, ripped Obama's policies, spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "I think you can go back and look at any number of statements that he's made in the past about the economy and wonder where some of the backup for those are, too." (Jon Stewart seized on those statements in his "Daily Show" assault on Cramer, particularly Cramer's repeated endorsements of the now-defunct Bear Stearns.)

And after CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, a former options trader, attacked the president's mortgage plan -- amid cheering at the Chicago Board of Trade -- Gibbs said: "It's tremendously important . . . for people who rant on cable television to be responsible and understand what it is they're talking about. I feel assured that Mr. Santelli doesn't know what he's talking about."

The public, for now, isn't siding with the critics. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll two weeks ago, 84 percent of those surveyed said Obama inherited the nation's economic conditions, while 8 percent said his policies are mostly responsible for today's economic woes.

At some undefined point, the battered economy will be seen as Obama's problem. The conventional wisdom when he took office was that he had a year to show some progress. But that was before cable commentators started handing out 50-day report cards and presidents were expected to solve problems before the next round of Sunday talk shows.

Trapped in the Bubble?

The debate echoes louder as the economy keeps sinking: Did business journalists let us down?

"By and large," says the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual report, released yesterday, "the press as an institution failed to function as an early warning system for what is now being called the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression."

The media, says the report, were "sporadic" in their attention and "late to connect the dots": "Journalists were slow to pick up on the broader implications of what emerged as a housing markets crunch in late 2007. Even though coverage intensified somewhat in early 2008, the press again drifted away from the economic story in the days just before the big September collapse. But after Lehman Brothers failed, coverage exploded, filling about a quarter of the newshole (26%) during the last three months of the year."

Considerable media energy was diverted to the presidential campaign, the report notes, and most government officials and economists also failed to anticipate the magnitude of the crisis. But for too many months, "journalists may have failed to have their ears close enough to the ground, relying instead on official pronouncements about the state of the economy rather than on the economic realities facing the storeowner, the homeowner and the breadwinner."

In fairness, some journalists unearthed key chunks of the story, from subprime loan risks to the rise of such exotic instruments as credit default swaps. But such stories rarely made the front page or network newscasts.

Footnote: Iraq coverage, meanwhile, has fallen "off a cliff," to use Warren Buffett's phrase about the economy. Last year, the report says, the war drew about a quarter of the coverage it received in 2007, dropping from 16 percent of the news hole to just 4 percent. Newspapers were above average, devoting 6 percent of their front-page stories to Iraq.

Aiming Right

The Washington Times, long viewed as a conservative newspaper, is launching a conservative Web site.

Executive Editor John Solomon sees no "blurring of the lines" with the paper's news coverage, saying that only Times editorials and columns will be included. "Obviously our opinion pages are center-right, so this will be a center-right site packaged for people who enjoy that type of opinion," he says. Solomon says TheConservatives.com (slogan: Reinventing the Right) will include video and a daily blog by Amanda Carpenter, formerly of Townhall.com, once it is fully developed this spring.

Solomon is also targeting military bases around the world with a site that will invite soldiers and their families to post their opinions.

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