Few groups can massage a dubious forecast into a decidedly optimistic one more readily than liberal Democrats, whose role in the American doctrinal system is to play the lesser of two dire and terminal evils. This banal, tepid, pulseless kind of faux-activism is perfectly suited to the habitués of this giant demographic, many of who exhausted their political passions cheering civil rights and picketing Vietnam in the Sixties. But they inhabit a curious and inviting place along the register of U.S. politics. Liberals know they will always be marginally better than the Republican right, which is caught in a nasty, unresolvable ménage a trois between conservatives, neoconservatives, and Tea Party libertarians. And they can rightly ignore that rabidly socialist left that has slipped outside of the party’s embrace, and thus out of earshot of anyone that matters. Aside from even that, a sizeable number of voters simply want to believe America is improving, that the American Dream is still alive, and that their children will benefit by the promises of the platitude-mouthing candidate they just elected.
Within liberal punditry, or any punditry for that matter, few doctrinal methodologies more persuasive than the use of simple imagery. Pie charts, bar charts, column, bubble, scatter plot, the X-Y axis—take your pick. They all exist for the garden-variety propagandist to employ to distill, twist, turn, slice and slenderize into elementary, self-evident and easily-digested data graphics. The better to edify and convince the average American. For an exhausted population tired from the quotidian slog, which increasingly includes the search for work, there’s little appetite for complicated graphics or, worse, deep and thought-provoking reportage on the signal issues of the day. Better to provide calming palliatives that soothe and reassure, and offer emotional safe harbors where citizens can park their political faith until the next “quadrennial extravaganza,” to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase.
Case in point: an episode of Thom Hartman’s RT show The Big Picture, featuring his usual “Politics Panel.” This is not to say that Hartmann doesn’t often provide some incisive commentary on the travails of the American experiment, but this edition offered a template for persuasion-by-pie-chart punditry. The assembled panel jovially discussed Hillary Clinton’s derisive comments about President Obama’s foreign policy, eventually smoothed over with a quick White House summons. Clinton said the administration’s failure to get more involved in Syria led to the rise of ISIS. (Of course, Clinton failed to note that it was our involvement in Syria and Iraq that have deposited a huge arsenal of guns and artillery in ISIS’ lap, the better to overrun every vestige of democratic sentiment in the region.) She also added that “don’t do stupid stuff” is not a strategy, as if that was the pinnacle of the administration’s sophistication. That aside, one can hardly recall strong leadership emerging from the State Department during Clinton’s reign, nor does the former First Lady instill confidence—of any kind. She looks rather fatigued, sounds disinterested, and frequently conveys the impression that she is being dragged into a campaign she’d rather dodge by her megalomaniacal consort, lurking like Polonius behind the nearest drape. And yet—an alarming percentage of Americans seem to fancy her as a woman-of-the-people.
What Hartman’s show did was outline Clinton as the budding neoconservative and attempt to separate her from Barack Obama, who it then proceeded to paint as a net positive for the American public. As the Politics Panel revved up, Hartman trotted out several charts to justify his mystified response to Republican critics of the president. (Time code18:22)
The first was a simplistic chart drawn from the federal budget department. It contained a single line representing government spending through the Bush and Obama eras. Dutifully dichotomized in traditional red and blue, the chart depicted spending surging mightily during the Bush era and then, in Hartmann’s words, showing how it has “plateaued” since. Hartmann presents this as indisputably clear evidence of Obama’s prudence as a commander-in-chief.
While perhaps commentators like myself don’t often credit the president for stabilizing the debt inflation of the Bush era, it’s usually because of the way he’s done it. Obama opportunistically seized on the morbid “Fix the Debt” mantra echoing from the halls of Koch Mansion early in his presidency. It was the perfect rationale: he could claim, as a representative of the people’s party, to want to expand the safety net, create middle-class jobs, and strengthen education just as perhaps FDR and LBJ had in times of crises past. Yet—the crucial caveat emerges—because of the Bush wars our debts have grown so menacing that the only prudent path was to tackle the deficit (much like his exemplar and presidential prototype, Bill Clinton). My hands are thus tied, he seemed to say. This tactic permitted a temperamentally cautious president—and unsurprisingly wary black president—to skirt the kinds of radical change he had conjured in the minds of the voting public (quite deliberately, of course). But as forgiving voters never seem to forget, it’s the thought that counts.
From that starting point, Obama announced he was amenable to cutting social programs in an effort to address the spending spiral. Hence the deal he cut with Republicans that trimmed a trillion dollars from discretionary social spending, plus another trillion enacted by the “sequester”. He proposed real cuts to unemployment benefits, Medicaid, Medicare, and a more stringent formula for Social Security (though some of these were actually rejected by Republicans). These domestic cuts were implemented in the wake of an economic collapse that bore the dirty prints of a venal Democratic Party that had auctioned off Washington’s regulatory role to the highest bidders. Even as cuts took hold, the defense budget was protected, largely through the chicanery of appearing to publicly enact and then quietly annul sequester cuts. The 2015 budget has defense spending cresting at $648 billion dollars.
Aside from the source of the spending cuts, the context of budgetary decisions, unexplained by the simplistic graph, is crucial. Bush spending skyrocketed in the wake of 9/11, when he sought, as any president likely would have, to use an atrocity as a pretext to further his political agenda. By the time Obama came into office, both wars—Afghanistan and Iraq—were lost causes destined to be ignominiously wound down. Obama’s job along the continuum of U.S. power was to exit those quagmires, both of which have long since staggered past the $700 billion mark. Obama polished his warmonger credentials by effecting a brief surge in Afghanistan before moving forward with the inevitable retreat. Much of his tasks consisted of couching defeat in triumphal terms. Rhetorical flights aside, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan and an even more strident Islamic radicalism is dismembering Iraq.
After a comparable chart on the deficit depicting similarly steep spikes and stunning descents, another chart nobly provides a Bush-and-Obama-era timeline on employment. Columns above a horizontal line are net job gains, below are net job losses. Both show plummeting losses across both administrations before the $700 billion stimulus, a plausibly effective check on the economic slide for which Obama deserves the credit. After that, as the chart depicts, it’s been all positive gains. Not much, but consistent gains that marginally outpace population growth—a factor not mentioned by Hartmann or included in the chart.
(As a sop to the Bermuda Triangle of conservatives, neocons and Tea Partiers, the chart also cleverly limits Bush’s job statistics to his final year in office, as the Great Recession opened its gaping maw and sucked the life out of the American economy. None of the fairly typical job growth from the first seven years of his presidency are anywhere in evidence.)
Aside from the lost population insight, the chart does note that it only reflects private employment, not public. This is largely because Obama has been shedding public sector jobs since he took office at a “violent” pace unmatched by any president in recent memory.
Perhaps most alarmingly, Hartmann’s chosen chart offers no assessment of the quality of jobs created or lost under Obama. It runs through May 2014, and correctly shows the month-by-month uptick in job creation. Yet what happened this June is indicative of the kind of quality shifts that have taken hold since the Great Recession and so-called recovery began. In June, the U.S. lost some 500,000 full-time jobs and replaced them with 800,000 part-time jobs. Although the half-million full-timers erased from the inventory were more than usual, the trend of exchanging high-wage, full-time jobs for low-wage, part-time jobs has been rollicking along since we began offshoring work in earnest in the 1980s.
After spotlighting their irrefutable facts on the set’s giant flat screen, Hartmann turns from the charts to face his panel of critics with a shrug and a supercilious gaze. Who could argue with a line chart? The facts are clear. The verdict is in. Obama is good for America. A more nuanced perspective would have served viewers far better than the bickering panel of politicos debating whether Hillary was right to savage her former boss. But a dialogue with more depth would have run the risk of depositing pundits and viewers alike in a kind of ideological wasteland, where none of the present alternatives offer the slightest hope for the kind of political metamorphosis America so desperately needs, but finds so despairingly remote.