WaPo, with Optimistic-but-Anonymous Officials, Spins Deficit Story Forward

The Washington Post’s page-one story about the federal deficit is generating a lot of buzz, as it should. It’s got some important new data, and, more significantly, administration officials breathing a sigh of relief—almost bragging, really—about the numbers, something they’ve been unwilling to do, at least in public.

The piece comes with political analysis, implications for the bond market, acknowledgement of the ongoing fiscal strains, and the expected circumspection: “The officials expressed cautious optimism about the figures but noted that the outlook remains uncertain.”

Here’s the meat of the matter:

The federal deficit is running significantly lower than it did last year, with the budget gap for the first half of fiscal 2010 down 8 percent over the same period a year ago, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.

The officials attributed the results to higher tax revenue and to lower spending than projected on bailing out the financial system. If the trend continues for the rest of the year, it would mean the annual deficit would be $1.3 trillion — about $300 billion less than the administration’s projection two months ago for 2010.

The piece then points out the “political gamble” that administration officials are taking, noting that if the budget deficit “surpasses the $1.4 trillion recorded last year, voters in the November midterm elections could punish the Democrats for offering false hope.”

Dean Baker is quick to call foul, deriding the Post for suggesting that voters will care about “whether this year’s deficit is marginally higher or marginally lower than last year’s deficit” when they’re really worried about “their jobs and their homes.”

Ehh.. I dunno. The Post’s wording isn’t perfect. But I think Stan Collender is right, there is a political risk here.

The interesting thing is that the White House somehow thinks that, even if it is $300 billion less than anticipated a few months ago, a deficit of $1.3 trillion is something it can use to demonstrate its budget acumen. That may be true fiscally and in terms of managing the bailout, but from a communications standpoint the headline of a more than $1 trillion deficit isn’t likely to be taken as a sign of any success by too many people. And even if it is less than expected, a deficit of that size is certainly going to be demagogued by the GOP.

I’m more concerned about the Post’s reliance on these administration officials, who, as we’ve sadly come to expect, “spoke on the condition of anonymity because the findings are preliminary and the results for the full year might not turn out so well.” That’s a reason for anonymity?

The sources are important for the piece’s political context, and show the administration willing to go someplace it’s been avoiding, and to look ahead to what it could mean if the trend continues—even though the administration’s deficit projections won’t formally be revised until late summer.

But the Post ledes with the deficit’s 8 percent decline, and hangs that on the unnamed officials too. There’s no need. Others reported the same thing, on the same day, relying on the Treasury Department’s new monthly report for the data. Here’s the AP:

The deficit through the first six months of this budget year totals $716.99 billion. That’s a drop of 8.2 percent from the same period a year ago.

Of course, this is one of those stories that gets seen many ways. The Journal didn’t see the sunny side. Its headline:

U.S. Posts 18th Straight Monthly Budget Deficit in March

But it’s the Post’s take that is grabbing the attention. So much so that Reuters had to make that dreaded call to an OMB spokesman, who pooh-poohs his colleagues for talking out of turn.

“While the positive news is welcome, it is premature and irresponsible to be making deficit projections for the fiscal year as a whole,” said Kenneth Baer, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

If it seems like we’ve recently been through this kind of leak-the-good-news cycle, it’s because we probably have. Did you see that Journal story on Monday, about how the bailout might not end up being as expensive as feared? (It’s a factor, as the Post and others noted, that’s contributing to those improved deficit numbers.)

As momentum grows at companies that looked like zombies just a few months ago to repay taxpayers for lifelines they got during the financial crisis, the projected cost of the bailout is shrinking to just a fraction of previous estimates. Treasury Department officials say the tab is likely to reach $89 billion, which includes the Troubled Asset Relief Program, capital injections into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, loan guarantees by the Federal Housing Administration and Federal Reserve moves such as buying mortgage-backed securities and propping up the commercial-paper market.

Here’s Andrew Ross Sorkin with the call at the Times:

Every couple of months the Treasury Department takes a moment to strategically leak some good news about the bailouts. It happened again on Monday, when a Treasury official told The Wall Street Journal that America’s coffers would be only $89 billion lighter after all accounts were settled from the rescues, down from an earlier estimate of $250 billion.

It’s enough to make us all feel rich, isn’t it?

Inside the Obama administration, there are whispers of even greater optimism, with some officials suggesting that if the economic recovery continues apace, the bailout program could eventually turn from red to black.

Sorkin goes on to recall the debates of 2008 and early 2009 over what the government should do about the teetering financial system. “Some economists, including Nouriel Roubini of New York University and The Times’s own Paul Krugman, declared that we should follow the example of the Swedes by nationalizing the entire banking system.”

Krugman doesn’t like that at all, insisting that he only wanted the government to take “temporary full ownership of a few weak banks.” It’s an important distinction, and looks like an argument that could run for a while.

But, back to the deficit. As the Post piece shows, there’s a lot of subtlety to those numbers, and to what counts as news. It’s a good idea for readers to be alert to the art of leak-and-spin as it’s practiced in Washington.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.