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Do you remember the winter of debt?
In late 2010 and early 2011, the U.S. economy had barely begun to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Around 9 percent of the labor force was still unemployed; long-term unemployment was especially severe, with more than 6 million Americans having been out of work for 6 months or more. You might have expected the continuing employment crisis to be the focus of most economic policy discussion.
But no: Washington was obsessed with debt. The Simpson-Bowles report was the talk of the town. Paul Ryan’s impassioned (and, of course, hypocritical) denunciations of federal debt won him media adulation and awards. And between the capital’s debt obsession, the Republican takeover of the House, and a hard right turn in state governments, America was about to embark on a period of cutbacks in government spending unprecedented in the face of high unemployment.
Some of us protested bitterly against this policy turn, arguing that a period of mass unemployment was no time for fiscal austerity. And we were mostly right. Why only “mostly”? Because it’s becoming increasingly doubtful whether there’s any right time for fiscal austerity. The obsession with debt is looking foolish even at full employment.
After Tuesday night’s debacle in the Oval Office, television network executives should be spending the day in their spacious offices practicing a simple word: No.
No, Mr. President, you may not break into prime-time programming to fundraise and mislead.
They’ll need to practice because you can be sure that the request will come again. And again.
Let’s be clear: There was no — zero — news in President Trump’s address to the nation last night. [..]
I wouldn’t suggest, for a moment, that network television and the rest of the mainstream media should ignore what the president says. That would be irresponsible, not to mention impossible.
Especially with 800,000 federal workers bearing the brunt of an unnecessary government shutdown, there is inherent news value in what’s going on. News organizations are rightly focused on that, including on the president’s attempts to justify it.
But broadcasting him live and unfiltered — whether in an Oval Office speech, or an impromptu news conference, or at a campaign rally — has been a bad idea for quite some time.
Instead, whatever news is produced can be presented in context with facts woven in from the start: Truth first.
Televised prime-time speeches are performances. No matter how serious the subject, they are an opportunity for politicians to use the tools of entertainment — lighting, setting, writing, delivery — in the service of persuasion.
Neither President Trump nor the Democratic congressional leaders did a particularly effective job last night, in their dueling speeches about the government shutdown. Trump is almost comically stiff while reading a pre-written speech. He spent much of his Oval Office address squinting in the camera, as if he couldn’t read his teleprompter, and — as social media noted — he audibly sniffed after many of his lines.
President Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” was never a serious policy proposal. It was a symbol to reassure his supporters that he would keep the sorts of people they don’t like out of the country. It was also a memory device designed by his advisers to remind Trump to talk about immigration in every 2016 campaign speech.
But since Trump has absolutely no interest in policy, it is appropriate that he has shut down part of our government to defend a piece of rhetoric.
Donald Trump is a master at manufacturing faux crises. He is not a master at faking humanitarian concern.
He thought that speaking from the Oval Office and sitting behind the Resolute desk would help him invoke a grave national crisis. It’s the setting that JFK used to tell the country about life-threatening Cuban missiles. It’s where George W Bush tried to calm the country after 9/11.
Speaking robotically and looking isolated and lonely, the president tried to sell his unnecessary and inhumane $5bn border wall using stale arguments we have heard many times before. The speech sounded like campaign rhetoric and contained nothing new. In a fundraising letter I received by email in the afternoon, the president’s naked political aims were obvious.