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The New Press Secretary Must Jettison Happy Talk

My guess is that White House press secretary Jay Carney will be an improvement over his predecessor, Robert Gibbs (not a high bar to clear, I’ll admit). But if you want to see an example of how credibility can be squandered away briefing by briefing, watch this short clip of Carney, who insists that the “goals” of the stimulus package “have been met.”

In fact, the empirical goals used by the Obama administration, which are the ones we can best assess, have not been met. The president’s economic team claimed that if the stimulus package were passed, unemployment would not exceed 8 percent and it would be around 7 percent by now. Instead, unemployment rose above 10 percent, and it hasn’t dropped below 9 percent since.

When challenged on the data, Carney made excuses (“the business of predicting the future in terms of economics is tricky”) and said, “We’ve said … we don’t want to relitigate the battles of the past.”

What precisely does that mean? That we’re not to judge lawmakers and presidents based on their legislation? That we should ignore past predictions if they are wrong? That the past should be forgotten? That accountability is passé?

There is a tendency of every administration to engage in such claptrap.

Carney, in defending the administration, could have said two things — first, that the administration was wrong in its unemployment predictions; it turned out they were too optimistic, and they made a mistake. Go ahead and admit what is indisputable. Second, Carney could, however, argue that on balance the stimulus package was well worth it because it stabilized the economy and kept us from sliding into a second Great Depression. The recession is over, the economy is growing, and a million new jobs have been added. Therefore it’s legislation the administration not only stands behind but is proud of. It really isn’t all that hard. But for Carney to claim that the goals of the stimulus have been met undermines everything else he says.

One senses that we’re entering a period in American politics when there’s a premium on straight talk rather than happy talk. If Mr. Carney hopes to retain his and the president’s credibility, he might consider jettisoning shallow talking points in favor of honest arguments.



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