Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

February 14th, 2011 7:52 PM

The President as Storyteller-in-Chief

The celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth overlooked an important part of Reagan's success: his ability to craft an image to serve as the focus of his political argument. When he was running for president in 1980 Reagan invented two great tales that highlighted the worldview he was selling to his supporters.

One of these tales was the story of the welfare queen. She drove to the welfare office in a Cadillac every month to pick up her welfare check. The other story involved a man who bought an orange with food stamps and then used the change to buy a bottle of vodka. Never mind that these stories were almost certainly not true: They crystallized an image of the world that Reagan campaigned against.

Unfortunately, in this respect President Obama is no Ronald Reagan. He has persistently refused to give the country a story of the economic downturn. As a result, the center and right have eagerly filled the void.

The center-right story centers on government excess: large budget deficits, overpaid public employees and bloated government social programs. Just as was the case with President Reagan's stories, these stories are not true.

The large budget deficits were an outcome of the crisis: Tax collections plummeted and spending on countercyclical programs like unemployment insurance rose. The deficits in the years preceding the crisis were actually relatively small when measured against the size of the economy.

As far as the pay of public employees, there have been a number of studies showing that, after controlling for education and experience, state and local employees are paid slightly less than their private-sector counterparts. It is possible to find examples of public employees who are arguably overpaid, but the data show this is the exception, not the rule.

Finally, we have the story of out-of-control social programs. There are two different stories here. There are a number of programs focused on helping low-income people that even collectively don't amount to a hill of beans in terms of the total budget. We can stop paying for nutrition for poor children or buying heating oil for low-income seniors, but even zeroing out these programs entirely barely makes a dent in the budget.

Then we have the universal programs, like Social Security and Medicare. These programs cost a lot of money, but people are willing to pay for them. Furthermore, the story of exploding growth in these "entitlements" stems entirely from our broken health care system.

If per person health care costs in the United States were the same as in any other wealthy country, we would be looking at enormous budget surpluses, not deficits. Everyone in Washington knows this, but they are scared of the drug companies, the insurance companies, the doctors' lobbies and other powerful interest groups, so instead they push for cutting these essential programs.

In short, the center-right story's can easily be shown to be nonsense. However, President Obama has put up nothing to counter it. He has backed away from telling the public the truth: The country faces an enormous economic hole right now because the financial industry ran wild over the last decade and the Fed and other government regulators let them.

It would not be difficult to come up with salacious images of people like Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide or Robert Rubin of Citigroup living the good life, while tens of millions of people suffer unemployment and/or foreclosures because of the fallout from their greed. President Obama could also highlight the incredible incompetence of top economic officials like Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, who let the $8 trillion housing bubble grow unchecked.

This would provide a compelling and truthful narrative to focus the nation's attention. Polls consistently show that the public has an intense dislike of Wall Street. What better place to direct people's anger than on those who are actually responsible for the economic crisis?

However, President Obama has opted to go in a different direction. He has instead embraced the false narrative pushed by the center-right, actually implying the problem is somehow out-of-control government spending, as though the housing bubble was not the source of the economic crisis. This may endear him to the Wall Street crew, but this narrative is a disaster for those who care about putting people back to work, providing workers with a secure retirement, and protecting the gains that unions have helped to secure for workers in both the public and private sector.

At the time of his election, many progressives hoped that President Obama could play the same transformational role in this crisis as President Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. The more limited hope was that he could be an inspirational leader to his base in the same way as Ronald Reagan was for the right. At this point, the best hope is that he doesn't open the door to unwinding 75 years of economic and social progress.

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

If you have a moment today, I hope you can read the obituary for my father Francis (Frank) Moore, who died this past Saturday at the age of 92: Francis...

Apr 22nd
6:33 PM
Read More

My father, Francis (Frank) Moore, passed away this morning a few months shy if his 93rd birthday. He was a great dad I am blessed to have had him in my life. I...

Apr 20th
2:58 AM
Read More

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles