When asked what posed the greatest challenge to statesmen, Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, responded, "Events, my dear boy, events."
That's because events tend to throw everybody off their plan. For example, Hurricane Irene ended President Obama's vacation early. And the hurricane's steady deterioration upset the plans of news producers who anticipated something more dramatic for their wall-to-wall coverage.
In a similar fashion, Obama and his advisors predicted the economy would do better -- much better -- than it has, and those predictions were wrong. The president blames events: the European debt crisis, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the political tsunami of the 2010 elections. Some of that is plausible, but the two years of anemic job and economic growth that preceded those events can hardly be blamed on them. An earthquake in Japan didn't make Obama's green-jobs initiative a bust, and the Euro crisis didn't render "shovel-ready jobs" a myth. And it's those failures that have scuttled Obama's plans for an easy re-election in 2012, and left him and his supporters stunned and shocked.
My National Review colleague Jim Geraghty has chronicled how, over the last few years, the media have greeted bad economic news by saying it is unexpected. For instance, Bloomberg reported "Sales of U.S. previously owned homes unexpectedly dropped in July." Reuters tells us that "Consumer spending unexpectedly fell in June." And so on.
Many who've been following the trend point to media bias. The press corps, writ large, wants Obama to succeed, argues American Enterprise Institute political analyst Michael Barone, so "they characterize economic setbacks as unexpected, with the implication that there's still every reason to believe that, in Herbert Hoover's phrase, prosperity is just around the corner."
I certainly think there's more than a little truth to that. The media get hooked on a story line -- hurricanes are getting worse because of climate change, Obama's a pragmatist doing the smartest things to fix the economy -- and when the facts contradict the story line, it's, well, unexpected.
But it can't be simply media bias because the experts whom reporters call for quotes also are surprised. As Geraghty notes, groupthink is a culprit too. The guys on Wall Street use the same Keynesian computer models as the folks in the White House.
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