News and Politics in the Age of GPS

BY Gwen Ifill  September 10, 2010 at 1:00 PM EDT

Like many of you, I have become slightly addicted to the voice embedded in my dashboard that tells me where and how to drive my car.

If I miss an exit, it grows silent for a moment before calmly advising me that it is “recalculating.”

If only there were a global positioning app for news and politics.

If there were such a thing, the White House would have been prepared when recently departed budget director Peter Orszag blindsided his old boss by disagreeing about tax cuts.

If there were such a thing, the president’s repeated efforts to change course to focus on the economy would not so frequently and almost predictably be thrown off course by New York Imams, Middle East peace talks, tea party protests – and, this week, a small-time Florida preacher’s plan to burn Qurans on his lawn.

If there were such a thing, we in the news business would not leap so eagerly after every single one of these bright shiny objects whenever they intruded on our peripheral vision.
“That’s the world we live in right now,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as she joined a clutch of senior administration officials in denouncing the spotlight grabbing Florida pastor Terry Jones. “It doesn’t in any way represent America or Americans or American government or American religious or political leadership.”

It also did not represent the topic the administration has so doggedly been seeking to return to — the economy.

With polls sliding, jobless rates rising and a tax cut debate gathering steam, distraction is the last thing the White House and Congress need.

They wanted this week to talk about boosting small business and championing the middle class. They wanted to set the course for a fall campaign that already seems to be skidding off course for Democrats and veering toward tea party domination for Republicans.

That is the likely reason so many of the president’s political opponents – from Sarah Palin to Mitch McConnell to John McCain – have also joined the chorus of complaints against Pastor Jones. They, too, can read the polls. And both parties are in peril when they appear to be paying attention to anything other than the nation’s stubborn economic plight. The voters are clearly on the verge of declaring a pox on everyone’s house.

But it is difficult to look away from a train wreck, especially one that could actually result in global violence. And then, when Donald Trump stepped in and offered to buy the lower Manhattan site of the proposed Islamic center, the whole thing showed signs of becoming a dangerous reality show.

You can bet that all sides are recalculating just about now, counting down the less than eight weeks until Americans go to the polls and deliver a primal scream at the ballot box.

No matter who controls the House and the Senate after the dust settles, that is sure to sting.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website. Tune in to Friday’s roundtable for political analysis and more.