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Fourth Time's the Charm? Networks Take Yet Another Crack at Portraying Obama as Deficit Hawk

Reporters eagerly anticipated President Obama's budget speech Wednesday afternoon, with NBC's Chuck Todd assuring Today show viewers that now, finally, "the President's going to add his voice to this, debate, essentially, over what to do about the ever-growing deficit and debt."

But over and over again over the past two years, the media have painted Obama as a leader committed to "slashing" the deficit, only to have the absurdity of such spin later revealed by the administration's actual policies.

Let's start the trip down memory lane with coverage of President Obama's first budget speech in February 2009, which reporters claimed would include steps to aggressively reduce the deficit. ABC's David Muir began the February 21, 2009 World News by pitching how the President was "slashing the deficit by at least 50 percent by raising taxes on the wealthy, people making $250,000 and above, and cutting war spending by bringing troops home from Iraq."

The next night, ABC's Yunji de Nies kept up the salesmanship: "President Obama hopes to get control by slashing the federal deficit in half over the next four years. He'll do it by cutting spending in at least two keys areas: winding down the war in Iraq, which now costs the taxpayers an estimated $400 million a day, and federal health care spending by overhauling Medicare and Medicaid."

The next evening, February 23 - in spite of the massive stimulus plan just signed and ambitious campaign promises yet to fulfill - all three network newscasts touted how the President pledged at his "fiscal responsibility" summit to cut government spending and reduce the deficit by more than half:

NBC's Brian Williams heralded "the President's plan to bring down the federal deficit during a time of record government spending." CBS's Chip Reid explained that "most of the savings would come from winding down the war in Iraq; ending the Bush tax cuts for people making over $250,000 a year; and cutting spending." According to ABC's Jake Tapper, "deficit hawks applauded the President's focus today, saying ignoring the problem could cause an even more severe crisis....The President said to the group he has no interest in making government bigger for the sake of making it bigger."

A year and more than a trillion dollars in new debt later, the media once again cast Obama as a deficit fighter. At the top of the January 26, 2010 CBS Early Show, co-host Maggie Rodriguez highlighted: "President Obama calls for a big spending freeze and focuses on plans to help the struggling middle class, but does he have the political support he needs?"

Moments later, co-host Harry Smith similarly insisted that the President would "announce plans to cut the growing federal deficit and help the struggling middle class."
Over on Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos suggested to Republican Senator John McCain that Obama was doing everything Republicans would want on the deficit, and that any criticism was politically motivated: "Let's turn to the domestic issues. White House announced this morning a spending freeze. Three-year freeze on all non-defense discretionary spending. It's already drawing some criticism from your party. The House Majority Leader's- House Minority Leader John Boehner saying, "Given Washington's unprecedented spending binge, this is like announcing you're going on a diet after winning a pie-eating contest." But, isn't this exactly what Republicans have been calling for? You called for this in the campaign."

A week later, on the February 1 NBC Nightly News, Chuck Todd cast the President's health care scheme as one that would fight the deficit - and that failing to pass ObamaCare would just mean more debt: "If health care doesn't pass, because this budget assumes health care will pass, that's yet another $150 billion that would be tacked on to the deficit."

And, earlier this year, ABC's Jake Tapper on the February 14 World News touted Obama's initial budget, with comparatively tiny cuts in spending, as deeply painful: "In his $3.7 trillion budget proposal, the President promises pain....President Obama proposes eliminating Pell Grants for summer classes, as well as charging more for graduate student loans....Another painful cut, $2.5 billion from a program providing home heating assistance for the poor."

Newspaper headlines the following morning offered similar spin about "deep cuts," including the Washington Post: "Obama budget makes deep cuts, cautious trades," and the Boston Globe: "Deep cuts, chance of gains for state in Obama budget."

Expect new headlines Wednesday night and Thursday about the President's latest attempt to cast himself as a deficit hawk. It will soon be obvious if, this time, the reality matches the rhetoric.

- Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.