Jackie Calmes, Who Praised Obama's Expensive Stimulus, Suddenly Selling Him as Deficit Hawk on Eve of SOTU

On the eve of President Obama's first State of the Union, Jackie Calmes' front-page story credulously focuses on Obama's sudden pivot to deficit hawk without once mentioning the probable cause of such a move: The Republican win in the Mass. Senate race. The Times showed no such hesitation to point out George Bush's political struggles pre-SOTU.

On the eve of President Obama's first State of the Union address, the lead story in Wednesday's paper by reporter Jackie Calmes focused on Obama's abrupt transformation into a born-again deficit hawk: "Obama, On Own, To Set Up Panel On Nation's Debt - Seeks To Cut Deficits - Action Follows Vote by the Senate to Reject a Similar Group."

In a related video, Calmes played along with Obama's sudden about-face, claiming "the president wants to make deficit reduction a big part of his second-year agenda." Obama can do no wrong: After spending months defending Obama's costly stimulus package, Calmes is now giving Obama credit for the opposite: cutting spending!

Calmes fails to ask obvious questions: If Obama wants deficit reduction so badly, why did he spend his first year in office raising spending and pushing a vastly expensive government takeover of health care? And does the president's change of heart have anything to do with a titanic Republican upset in a Mass. Senate race? Neither the story nor the accompanying video mentioned it.

The Times did Obama a favor by leading with his underwhelming proposal of a commission on the national debt, to go along with the equally modest proposal of a limited budget freeze the president floated on Monday. Calmes never mentioned the Republican win in Massachusetts that may have wrecked the prospects for Obama-care, and disposed of the president's dimming approval ratings in a single sentence in paragraph 16. (The story of Obama's struggles was relegated to Jeff Zeleny's "White House Memo" page A17.)

Calmes wrote:

Advocates of more aggressive steps to address the national debt failed Tuesday in their effort to create a bipartisan commission to press for tax increases and spending cuts, but President Obama now plans to establish a similar panel by executive order in his State of the Union address on Wednesday.

The proposal for a commission died when its supporters could not muster enough votes in the Senate to push it ahead, reflecting unwillingness among many Republicans to back any move toward tax increases and objections among Democrats to the prospect of deep spending cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. While 53 senators voted for the plan and 46 against, it needed 60 votes to be approved under Senate rules.

The alternative panel to be established by Mr. Obama will also come up with recommendations by December to reduce annual budget deficits and slow or reverse the growth of the national debt. But unlike the commission proposal killed by the Senate, Mr. Obama's executive order could not force Congress to vote on a commission's suggestions.

Calmes finally made a blurred reference to Obama's political woes in paragraph 16:

Yet the public's belief that spending is out of control is undercutting Mr. Obama's support, polls show. And a debt of the size projected would threaten future prosperity and raise the interest rates the nation must pay for its borrowing, as foreign investors demand higher returns to reflect their risks.

The "White House Memo" by Jeff Zeleny, "A Failure to Communicate or the Wrong Message?" offered a preview of Obama's possible State of the Union mea culpa, evidenced by the text box: "Obama will accept responsibility, but not necessarily blame, aides say." The online headline is blunter: "In Speech, Obama to Admit Missteps in First Year."

Zeleny admitted that Obama is having political troubles, but he could not locate the source of the problem. Could it be that the president just isn't getting his message out?

For all the questions circulating in Democratic quarters as President Obama tries to weather the worst storm of his administration, perhaps none is as succinct as this: Are the missteps at the White House rooted in message or substance?

(Doubtful, given that tonight marks Obama's third address before a joint session of Congress.)

The Times' tone was far different during the Bush years. The paper wasn't at all hesitant to blare Bush's political woes on the front page on the eve of his last two State of the Union addresses, in January 2007 and January 2008 (Bush declined to deliver one before leaving office in 2009).

Lead sentence from a Jan. 23, 2007 front-page story by Jim Rutenberg and Robert Pear: "Bush, at Low Point in the Polls, Will Push His Domestic Agenda."

Carrying some of the worst public approval ratings of any president in a generation, President Bush is heading into his State of the Union address on Tuesday night seeking to revitalize his domestic agenda but facing stiff resistance over the initiatives the White House has previewed so far.

Lead sentence from the Jan. 28, 2008 front-page story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Echo of First Bush: Good Economy Turns Sour."

Will George W. Bush be remembered as the president who lost the economy while trying to win a war?