Battle of the Press Conferences: Who Will Win?
Policy + Politics

Battle of the Press Conferences: Who Will Win?

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While President Obama held a rare White House press conference Wednesday to blast Republicans for refusing to even consider eliminating tax breaks for millionaires to help reduce the deficit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., held a dueling press conference at the Capitol to propose  a balanced budget amendment  and to take a few swipes at the Democrats.

What to do if you’re part of the news media trying to keep up with the Democratic and Republican spin machines in covering negotiations over spending cuts and raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling?  Spread yourself very thin, for one thing.

“You have to cover everything,” Dave Weigel, a reporter at Slate and an MSNBC contributor told The Fiscal Times. “You don’t know who is bluffing really. Your access to the White House is limited because it’s a secret meeting. It’s frustrating to cover sometimes.”

The White House and Congress have only until August 2 to hammer out a major deficit reduction deal before the Treasury runs out of borrowing authority.  With the stakes so high—a potential default on U.S. debt that might permanently damage the country’s  standing in the world—it’s  a story that commands the media’s attention. This situation creates an ideal Petri dish in which  politicians can manipulate the media to their heart’s content in hopes of reaching out and appealing to the public.

“If they keep the children busy, they won’t ask questions about something else,” said a highly respected political reporter who asked not to be named.

“The only message that's coming through loud and clear in this debt ceiling debate is that our government is full of selfish, partisan buffoons,” Henry Blodget, CEO and Editor of Business Insider told The Fiscal Times. “We have serious problems to solve in this country, and we sent our reps to Washington to solve them. But listening to all the us-vs-them chanting and chest-thumping, you'd think they were playing a football game.”

Clearly, the two sides are having great success in getting their messages across. Cable news channels, political tip sheets and the mainstream media are awash in the latest pronouncements by the leaders on both sides. McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., hold near-daily press conferences to feed the media beast with their attacks on Obama and the Democrats for trying to raise taxes when they should be focusing  on cutting spending. Ditto, the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are quick to assault the Republicans for trying to decimate programs for the poor and middle class while leaving generous tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate executives with their company jets.

The problem is it does nothing to help either side resolve the looming crisis. As lawmakers fight over who can produce the best Blockbuster press conference and get in the last word, the media has become an unwitting pawn in the game playing happening on Capitol Hill.

For instance, there has been very little content about what specifically might be on the negotiating table regarding budget cuts in which both sides agree need to take place. Democrats have agreed to make budget cuts but whether they will be accompanied by tax hikes is another question. Republicans are standing fast and refusing to budge on tax hikes which have led to the current budget impasse.

Who will win in the court of public opinion in the face of such brinkmanship is unclear and ultimately won’t be determined until an 11th hour deficit reduction deal is made. Treasury Secretary Timothy warns that failure to raise the debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline would force the first default in U.S. history and touch off a cataclysmic international financial crisis.

One of the problems is that whenever high level policy talks take place, only a certain number of people are involved, so sometimes the remainder of the Washington wonks get bored and want to hold a press conference. If there was real substantive progress happening on the debt talks, arguably lawmakers would be in meetings rather than holding press conferences. 

“The media’s coverage is influenced by the fact that the people who the decisions are being made won’t talk on the record and the quotes that are coming from people who will talk on the record are really blasé and combative,” Weigel said.

How this plays with the public holds great risk for both parties, especially with the upcoming 2012 election. Coming into the debt ceiling negotiations, Congress’ reputation couldn’t be any lower while the president’s favorable ratings remain fairly strong and stable. The latest Gallup poll finds Congress’ job approval rating at 17 percent, just four points higher than the all-time low of 13 percent measured in December.

That suggests so far, at least, the Republicans’ withering assault on Obama’s economic stewardship hasn’t gained traction with the public. Meanwhile 47 percent of American’s approve of the way the president handles his job, according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll.

Could the debt ceiling negotiations provide a focal point for major shifts in public opinion? The dueling press conferences of recent days where each side sought to lay blame for the impasse on the other side won’t have much effect, according to Dean Debnam, chief executive officer of Public Policy Polling, an independent firm out of Raleigh, N.C.

“Each side is preaching to the choir,” he said. “And as long as either party is appealing only to its base, they’re not going to appeal to the middle where the voters are.”

He said the greater risk is on the Republican side. Newly-elected governors pursuing strategies similar to the national party’s Tea Party-backed “no new taxes” pledge are rapidly losing ground with the public in their states. “There’s a tremendous amount of buyers’ remorse out there,” Debnam said.

As Washington fans itself through the dog days of summer—already one of the hottest summers on record—the once sleepy discussion over the debt ceiling has morphed into center stage in the national debate. But are the vast majority of the American people really paying attention?

“We hope there is intense public interest in the outcome of this process,” said Julie Moos, Director Poynter online. “Everybody needs to understand their audience as they make decisions about what events they cover related to this process. Some audiences will devour morsel of every meeting and piece of activity related to this. Other people won’t tune until something dramatic happens.”

The Pew’s Research Center for Excellence in Journalism found in terms of the public’s priorities for economic policy, 52 percent of Americans say they would place a higher priority on reducing the budget deficit rather than on spending to help the economy recover. Just last week, the number one story was the national debt and 31 percent of the economy coverage was on the deficit/debt ceiling.

Maureen Mackey of The Fiscal Times contributed to this article.

More on Debt Ceiling from The Fiscal Times:
The Dubious Threat of a U.S. Debt Default (The Fiscal Times)
What Debt Limit? Plan B is the 14th Amendment (The Fiscal Times)
Obama Chastises GOP over Taxes, Debt Deadlock ( The Fiscal Times)