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Ready to Fight: Has Obama Finally Shaken Up Washington?

The proposals outlined in the president's fiery speech aren't new, but the administration appears to be getting serious about fighting for them.
 
 
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On Monday, Barack Obama proffered a deficit reduction package that would complement his call last week for a new focus on jobs. The proposals, especially the president's endorsement of the “Buffett Principle” -- which holds that the richest Americans should pay the same share of their incomes as their secretaries do – appears to have fired up the Democratic base.

“This is not class warfare—it's math," became the line of the day, and even Firedoglake, a site known for attacking Obama from the left,  acknowledged that while he “spent the first 2 1/2 years of his presidency courting” pundits and blue dog Democrats, Obama now appears to be “on the right track.”

Yet the president didn't offer a lot of new proposals in the jobs package he presented last week, nor in the deficit reduction plan he offered on Monday. Rather, he struck a new tone, which is itself significant. As the New York Times put it, “Obama confirmed... that he had entered a new, more combative phase of his presidency.”

Substance aside, the proposals have already had a salutary effect, refocusing the attention of a media obsessed with process onto a devastating jobs crisis to which they'd given short shrift over the past two years. The president and the Democratic leadership in Congress “pivoted” from an almost singular focus on deficits to the problems plaguing the real economy, and the media has pivoted right along with them.

In April, the president gave a speech in which he called the public debt, "the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security.” Shortly afterward, a study conducted by the National Journal looked at how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appeared in major publications and concluded, “major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit.” The analysis, wrote the Journal, “portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media's consciousness.”

But on September 8, Obama took to the podium and delivered an impassioned speech urging Congress to do something about the unemployment situation immediately and accusing those who would block a jobs bill of putting party before country. The proposals he offered resulted in a dramatic change in the media's focus. As Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism noted, “The troubled U.S. economy was the No. 1 story last week, and for the third week in a row, President Obama’s September 8 job creation speech and plan were the central themes in that economic coverage.” The economy accounted for 28 percent of the “news hole” the week Obama delivered his speech, and 20 percent last week.

The question of whether Obama has used his bully pulpit as effectively as he might have has been central to the often angry debate among progressives over the Obama presidency. Last month, psychologist Drew Westen penned a much-discussed op-ed in the New York Times accusing the administration of not doing enough to advance a genuinely progressive economic narrative. “The stories our leaders tell us matter,” he wrote, “probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.”

Dismissing his thesis as “nonsense,” Jonathan Chait wrote in the New Republic that Westen was indulging “a liberal fantasy” that was “unusually fixated on the power of words.” In Westen's view, wrote Chait, “every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”

 
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