The Misinformation Permeating the National Dialogue and What President Obama Can Do About It

Written by: Michael Baharaeen

Given today’s political climate, one is likely to hear many different talking points coming out of Washington as to how we must address our problems. Unfortunately, voters are likely to hear a plethora of misinformation during these debates (mostly from the Right – although it wouldn’t hurt Democrats to dial down the “end of the Medicare program” rhetoric), and an overwhelming portion of voters are not likely to discern fact from fiction. Some will unequivocally trust what their elected official tells them through various newsletters or town hall events, and others may simply not want to be presented with information contrary to what they believe, stirring up major cognitive dissonance in their minds. However, in order for our country to even begin a national dialogue on how best to address the problems confronting us, it is vital that the proper information is conveyed. Let us first, though, address a few of the ubiquitous mistruths.

1. “The health care mandate is socialism.” The individual mandate is a part of President Obama’s health care plan. It requires all persons to purchase health insurance and was originally an idea put forth by the Republican Party during the health care debate of the early ‘90s as a counterweight to President Clinton’s proposal. Initially, when proposed by the GOP, the whole idea behind the mandate was that of “personal responsibility,” but when Obama proposed the exact same concept, thereby rendering the public responsible for making sure they were covered and would not cause a spike in everyone else’s premiums by showing up in an emergency room uninsured, the idea all of a sudden became the crux of a diabolical scheme for a government takeover of the entire health care system (incidentally, “government takeover of healthcare” was dubbed “Lie of the Year,” by, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, fact-checking organization).

The only part of the president’s health care plan that is “socialized” is when those who cannot afford to buy their own insurance will be subsidized by the government, just like those on Medicaid.  And Medicare. And TRICARE. And those who use the VA. In fact, one could say that the health care bill that was passed was a gift to the private industry! Since there was no public, government insurance option in the final law, the bill essentially makes everyone purchase insurance from the private sector…which is about as far from government-run anything as you can get. I am not a big fan of this aspect of the bill, but the vital thing is to clear up the notion that this plan somehow involves Obama deciding whether or not each citizen in the country gets to see a doctor.

2. “The economy is still failing.” This is quite a pervasive misconception by the general public, perhaps due to the high level of unemployment. In fact, the economy has turned around significantly, new jobs are being added by the private sector every quarter (granted, some quarters see more significant growth than others), and some companies are seeing record profits. The reason that job reports continue to be so abysmal is because the federal government, in its efforts to cut the deficit, are taking away public service jobs. But in fact, GM, which was saved from bankruptcy through the auto bailout under Obama, has recently begun building the only subcompact cars in America. And, the S&P 500 has climbed back to the same zone it was in prior to the financial meltdown. So why is this myth of a failing (overall) economy becoming a seemingly contagious belief?

3. “Balancing the budget is more important than creating jobs.” Now, no one has explicitly ever said this, but why bother? We can see this playing out not only in Washington – where conventional wisdom says that the deficit takes precedence over everything else, and, hence, we have had zero jobs bills presented thus far this Congress – but in the American public, too. A recent Gallup poll on America’s priorities showed that, out of those surveyed, reigning in government spending took precedence over tackling unemployment. What this essentially means is that the Democrats have failed to fight for control of the national conversation because job growth should have been at the top of that list. This is not to say that we must put the deficit conversation on the back burner, but the fact is that the government must first spend to create jobs (or, at the very least, not cut funds that take away existing jobs), and it is critical that this be conveyed to the public in order to shift public opinion.

What makes this issue even more pertinent is a recent call from many conservatives to force the federal government to adopt a Balanced Budget Amendment. This is the quintessential example of mixed priorities. In theory, one might think that such a proposal sounds fairly sensible. However, problems begin to arise when the economy hits a recession and the government is unable to deficit spend due to constitutional restraints. This either results in tax hikes or cuts to programs that citizens are able to enjoy (imagine if we had to get rid of Medicare altogether, as a large portion of the government’s funds are allocated to this program, because we were not allowed to have a deficit). Examples of this can be seen at the state level, where every state in the Union, save for Vermont, has adopted a balanced budget amendment to their state constitution. This is not to say that in the absence of these amendments, spending should be reckless, but that extra leeway is sometimes needed.

As has been shown in the past, the government needs to be able to deficit spend in these times to give the economy a boost. In fact, in 2003, approximately 90% of the members of the American Economic Association agreed with the statement, “If the federal budget is to be balanced, it should be done over the course of the business cycle, rather than annually.” Notable Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has made comments to that same effect. This leads us to the conclusion that in order to focus on jobs, the deficit must be temporarily sacrificed, even if it is already fairly high. The basic idea is this: if the government spends money to create jobs for public workers, those workers will have more money in their pockets. They are then likely to spend money in other sectors of the economy, thus driving up demand in private sector businesses. And, in order for said businesses to keep up with that demand, they will have to hire more employees, who will then have money in their pockets. And around and around we go. This is basic demand-side economics. Once unemployment has been tamed, the government can then slightly raise revenue to begin alleviating the deficit.

The recent problem has derived from the fact that in order to cut the deficit, politicians have been voting to cut funding for public employee jobs, thereby raising unemployment. And it is important to note that the federal government is the largest employer in the country, so we are talking large numbers and different types of jobs that could be impacted by these cuts, including teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. The mayor of a town in Texas, which recently saw layoffs at their police station, came to the conclusion that the lack of public safety officers could be resolved if everyone in town would just buy a gun. It can be a vicious circle if we choose to make it one, but we can also spin it in a more positive direction. It should seem like putative knowledge, then, that the Republican philosophy of cutting spending to create jobs will only exacerbate unemployment. This leads us to the next misconception.

4. “Tax cuts for the rich create jobs.” This fallacy is possibly one of the most prevalent (and untrue) canards circulating the national dialogue today. Tax cuts for the rich don’t create any more jobs than if they were not given any tax cuts, not to mention that suggesting the government dish out its money to the super rich after just conveying that the number one priority should be cutting the deficit seems slightly counterintuitive. But as we have already discussed the deficit debate, let us examine tax rates in the light of job creation.

During President Reagan’s tenure in office, the income tax rate on the bracket for top earners was cut from 70% to 28%, and through his philosophy of “Reaganomics,” it was assumed that this extra money would trickle down to those in lower economic brackets because the rich would use it to create jobs. But all that was created from those cuts was a deficit so massive that Reagan ultimately had to raise taxes 6 times before leaving office. Another great example of the failure of this view is seen through the Bush tax cuts. After both rounds of tax cuts, Bush created a grand total of 1.1 million jobs while in office. To his credit, that number was slightly higher before the economic recession which began in 2007. But compare this to President Bill Clinton: approximately 11 million jobs were created during each of his terms. One gaping difference? Clinton kept tax rates for the top earner’s bracket 3% higher than Bush. Whether this higher rate actually made a difference in helping create jobs is debatable, but the point remains that the economy is rather ambivalent with regard to tax cuts. However, higher taxes can certainly help balance the budget (did you hear that, Tea Party deficit hawks?), as can be seen by juxtaposing Clinton’s giant surplus to the all-too-well-known deficit that Bush so kindly left Obama.

Something to note: Ironically, the introduction of tax increases that Clinton inherited, which led to the economic expansion of the early 1990s, began under Bush, Sr., the same tax increases which ultimately cost him his job (remember, “Read my lips: NO NEW TAXES”?)

5. “Republicans are the fiscally responsible party.” Do I even have to mention the fact that Vice President Cheney infamously said, “Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter”? In fact, Reagan had to raise taxes six times while in office in order to help shore up the mess that was made via Reaganomics. Sorry, “Reagan conservatives,” but it’s true. Google it.

Bush spent our way into two wars without even once considering paying for it; he passed two infamous rounds of tax cuts which failed to spur job growth whatsoever; and he fought for the costly Medicare Part D program. Reagan never balanced a budget. Bush Sr. ultimately had to raise taxes to tackle his budget problems. In fact, the last Republican president to balance a budget was Dwight Eisenhower, who, by today’s standards, would be decried as “far left,” for he was surely more liberal than President Obama. So when today’s GOP touts fiscal responsibility, take it with a grain of salt.

The consequence of this slew of misinformation and of voters’ seeming unfamiliarity with the facts is that politicians who bank on voter ignorance then use these untruths as a political tool at the expense of creating a misinformed body politic. Permeating messages such as “government takeover” or “they’re coming for your guns” or “man-dog marriages” are sure to mobilize their voters en masse. And as long as politicians can give their base a reason to get out and vote on Election Day, who cares whether people are well-informed? The problem for Democrats seems to be that because they hold such a large umbrella and encompass a wide array of voters, they have trouble standing behind one unified message.

Now, let us bring this dilemma into the debate surrounding today’s politics. No one in Washington is able to reach consensus on just about anything. President Obama and the Democrats, though they have good, progressive arguments to make, are incapable of enacting common sense policies because the far right has become so convinced that these policies are bound to take our country toward socialism or toward becoming a Third World country. It appears as though this is all the result of a systematic failure. Republicans are being forced to move further and further to the right, because if they don’t, they are likely to be challenged in a primary election by a Tea Party candidate. And Democrats, in fear of being perceived as “just as bad as the other side,” are caving in to every single GOP demand, in which case, what is the purpose of even having two parties? (And this, of course, leaves the political spectrum with a harshly skewed center.)

It is imperative, now more than ever, that the president take control of the conversation. The last time I checked, he was elected to the presidency on the ticket of the Democratic Party, so it is not crazy for one to think that when he enters a room to discuss our nation’s problems with his political adversaries, instead of saying “How much would you like to cut, $3 trillion or $4 trillion?” he would put his foot down and say, “Let’s get something straight: my party controls the Senate and the White House. If you want to focus on the deficit and you want us to concede spending cuts, you are going to raise taxes on the super-rich. If you’re not willing to do that, we don’t have anything to discuss. You can simply step aside and let the rest of us invest in our economy to create jobs.” It is crucial that Obama realizes that he has to start fighting for progressive change. The history of his tenure in office has shown that the Republicans are not going to accept his hand of compromise, regardless of what he offers them.

The simple truth, as a matter of principle, is this: high unemployment lowers any chance Obama has of being reelected. No sitting president has ever been reelected when the unemployment rate has been over 9%. Progressive policies are the only thing that can fix this mess. Is there anyone who sincerely believes that it would not be in the best interest of the Republican Party to ensure that the economy stays unhealthy so that they will have a scapegoat come 2012? Some may see these remarks as out-of-line – how could I possibly suggest that politicians are only looking out for their own skin and not for the betterment of the people? (That is a rhetorical question, by the way.) Others may believe that I am being too cynical. For those in the latter camp, I urge you to take a hard look at the current political climate and then ask yourselves whether or not it may just be a little naïve to assume that politicians have the best interests of the people in their minds when making – and this is indisputable – political calculations.

So I would like to take this opportunity to convey a message to President Obama: get in front of the national conversation! You have the facts on your side. Instead of submitting to the Republicans at every turn, spend your time talking to the American populace and explaining why progressive reforms are needed, why they make sense, and why we cannot return to the exact same policies which brought our country to its knees only a few years ago and which will not address the problem of growing unemployment. If you spend your time talking to the voters, not only will it cast you in a better light, but you will also have a more informed public, and that is crucial: as our friend Stephen Colbert has said, “Facts have a well-known liberal bias.”

Ergo, a better-informed electorate means more Democratic voters.