So the birther thing is kaput. That was easy. But the hijacking of the prevailing conversation in Washington by Republican extremists continues apace–in this case, abetted by elite establishment types (and especially by those high-minded Wall Streeters who gave you the Great Recession). And so, for the umpteenth time: Intelligent, humane long-term deficit reduction is necessary, but it’s the wrong conversation right now. The correct issue, as Rob Shapiro argues here, is getting the economy rolling again. Shapiro makes some smart suggestions; no doubt, there are other possibilities. But the important thing is this: So long as the conversation is about deficit-reduction, in the teeth of a recession, conservative extremists are playing offense and the President is, essentially, on the defensive. That he’s allowed this to happen is particularly remarkable since almost every poll shows the public is far more interested in jobs than it is concerned about deficits. To the extent that he continues playing this game, Obama is hurting himself in two ways: He continues to give the impression that he’s out of touch with the public’s real concerns–and he’s laying the groundwork for an economy that limps, sputters and perhaps stalls in 2012.