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Originally published March 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 16, 2009 at 2:23 AM

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As Dow falls, cable-news channels judge Obama

The chatter reflects a fast-forward culture that demands snap judgments. The cable-news channels, not content to wait for the traditional 100-day benchmark — itself an artificial media construct — were grading Obama last week on his 50-day performance.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — The drumbeat grows louder after each drop in the Dow.

"There's no confidence in Obama's plan," said Fox's Sean Hannity. "The markets respond to data. They have no confidence."

"The stock market is also demonstrating a lack of confidence in the president's big government agenda," said CNN's Lou Dobbs.

And it's not just those on the right. CNBC's Jim Cramer — an unabashed Democrat — complained that President Obama's "radical agenda" was causing the "greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president."

But is it fair to hurl such charges at a president who's been in office for less than eight weeks? Isn't Obama trying to dig out from the huge economic mess left by his predecessor?

The chatter reflects a fast-forward culture that demands snap judgments. The cable-news channels, not content to wait for the traditional 100-day benchmark — itself an artificial media construct — were grading Obama last week on his 50-day performance.

"Fixing the economy is not a television-friendly story," says Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer. "A plane crash in the Hudson where everyone survives is a television-friendly story. This is a slog."

The debate is also a barometer of the pain that millions of Americans are feeling as their nest eggs and retirement funds shrink dramatically. The Dow opened at 9,625 on the day Obama was elected, at 7,949 on the day he took office, and closed at 6,547 last Monday. (Of course, Obama's detractors didn't credit his policies when the index rebounded to over 7,200 later in the week.)

"To pin the blame on him is just fundamentally unfair and wrong," says former Business Week editor Steve Shepard, now dean of the City University of New York's journalism school. "It's the party line of The Wall Street Journal editorial page." While there is "a germ of truth" in the criticism — Shepard says that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner unveiled a "half-baked" bank bailout plan — "the decline of the market since Obama took office is largely related to the deepening of the economic disaster."

The Dow's decline began in the past 18 months of the Bush administration, after the index peaked at 14,164. Serwer says the crisis was "a generation in the making" and furthered by the Bush administration's "malignant neglect."

"Any president is going to be held responsible for the economy, but it's patently unfair to do it in such a short time frame." Still, he says, "in the 24-hour news cycle, you've got to have something to talk about."

The president, for his part, has likened the market swoon to the gyrations of political polls, saying that "buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it."

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The White House hasn't been shy about firing back at the critics. After Cramer, a former hedge-fund manager, ripped Obama's policies, spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "I think you can go back and look at any number of statements that he's made in the past about the economy and wonder where some of the backup for those are, too." (Jon Stewart seized on those statements in his "Daily Show" assault on Cramer.)

And after CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, a former options trader, attacked the president's mortgage plan — amid cheering at the Chicago Board of Trade — Gibbs said: "It's tremendously important ... for people who rant on cable television to be responsible and understand what it is they're talking about. I feel assured that Mr. Santelli doesn't know what he's talking about."

The public, for now, isn't siding with the critics. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll two weeks ago, 84 percent of those surveyed said Obama inherited the nation's economic conditions, while 8 percent said his policies are mostly responsible for today's economic woes.

At some undefined point, the battered economy will be seen as Obama's problem. The conventional wisdom when he took office was that he had a year to show some progress. But that was before cable commentators started handing out 50-day report cards and presidents were expected to solve problems before the next round of Sunday talk shows.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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