Sunday, November 21, 2010

Krugman on how Obama buys into an important part of the conservative "storyline"

Paul Krugman at his blog in a post called FDR, Reagan, and Obama 11/21/2010 tells an interesting story about how Obama uses a piece of conservative mythology - one that is factually false - criticizing Franklin Roosevelt's early approach to the Great Depression as President. He uses it to speculate on how emotionally committed Obama may be to what I think is better described as the neoliberal/globalization viewpoint:

More and more, it's becoming clear that progressives who had their hearts set on Obama were engaged in a huge act of self-delusion. Once you got past the soaring rhetoric you noticed, if you actually paid attention to what he said, that he largely accepted the conservative storyline, a view of the world, including a mythological history, that bears little resemblance to the facts.

And confronted with a situation utterly at odds with that storyline ... he stayed with the myth.
Since there are actual policy distinctions between Obama and the Republican conservatives, many of whom regard Obama as a socialist Kenyan revolutionary Marxist Muslim, I don't know how meaningful it would be to call Obama's assumptions "conservative". The "neoliberal" ideology, aka, the "Washington Consensus", includes many shared assumptions on deregulation, "free trade", limited government that go against the New Deal/Great Society perspective that not so long ago constituted the Democratic Party vision. But the role of liberals (or left parties) in neoliberalism is different from that of conservatives.

Sleepy Mark Shields gave a good statement of it in his "liberal" endorsement this past Friday of Social Security Phaseout:

And I think the argument I would make if I were urging Barack Obama to take up this cause is, look, Social Security and Medicare are going to be cut. Who do you want making those cuts?

Do you want Republicans, who have consistently opposed these programs, or do you want somebody and an administration that believes in them and that believes that the people and Social Security and Medicare have to be protected?

And I think that's the case for Democrats.
Krugman links to this piece of his, Debunking the Reagan Myth New York Times 01/21/2008, in which he was reacting in real time to Candidate Obama's praise of Ronald Reagan's Presidency:

The fact is that how we talk about the Reagan era still matters immensely for American politics.

Bill Clinton knew that in 1991, when he began his presidential campaign. "The Reagan-Bush years," he declared, "have exalted private gain over public obligation, special interests over the common good, wealth and fame over work and family. The 1980s ushered in a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness, of irresponsibility and excess, and of neglect."

Contrast that with Mr. Obama’s recent statement, in an interview with a Nevada newspaper, that Reagan offered a "sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

Maybe Mr. Obama was, as his supporters insist, simply praising Reagan’s political skills. (I think he was trying to curry favor with a conservative editorial board, which did in fact endorse him.) But where in his remarks was the clear declaration that Reaganomics failed? [my emphasis]
And this concern of Krugman's in that nearly-three-years ago column has sadly proven to be prescient:

It’s not just a matter of what happens in the next election. Mr. Clinton won his elections, but — as Mr. Obama correctly pointed out — he didn’t change America’s trajectory the way Reagan did. Why?

Well, I'd say that the great failure of the Clinton administration — more important even than its failure to achieve health care reform, though the two failures were closely related — was the fact that it didn't change the narrative, a fact demonstrated by the way Republicans are still claiming to be the next Ronald Reagan.

Now progressives have been granted a second chance to argue that Reaganism is fundamentally wrong: once again, the vast majority of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track. But they won’t be able to make that argument if their political leaders, whatever they meant to convey, seem to be saying that Reagan had it right.
And if the Democrats embrace Social Security Phaseout, any chance of changing that larger narrative during Obama's Presidency will be flushed down the drain of history.

This failure to "change the narrative" should not be understood as primarily a messaging problem or a marketing problem in the narrow sense. It's first and foremost a problem of policy. As one all-too-familiar example, the Obama Administration has put a major priority of saving megabanks that failed through management reckless and irresponsibility, but is very visibly reluctant to do much of anything to mitigate the homeowners being evicted by those same backs, not infrequently in a downright crooked way through sleazy foreclosure contractors and missing or fraudulent documentation. While it's not impossible to market that as a concern for ordinary people suffering, it would certainly be far easier to market that claim on the basis of a policy that visibly and aggressively protected targets of criminal foreclosure actions.

More on Obama's remark earlier this month on FDR can be found in Leo Hindery, Jr., "Political Malpractice in the First Degree." Huffington Post 11/16/2010 and Thomas Ferguson, The Story Behind Obama's Remarks on FDR New Deal 2.0 11/18/2010. Hindery's verdict, with an appropriate use of "foreclosed":

... by committing his administration to a too-small stimulus package early last year, now that John Boehner is soon to be the Speaker of the House, President Obama may have foreclosed achieving the only major remedy left to the nation to bring unemployment down and economic growth up, which is more and better-directed economic stimulus. By effectively conceding the argument over the role of government in a deeply depressed economy, the Obama economic team essentially left for now only the Fed and its imprecise quantitative easing to jumpstart the economy.

The Obama economic team also fell prey to the President's and his most senior advisors' belief that, in their own words, Mr. Obama won the 2008 election "because of character, not issues." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. [my emphasis]
He also mentions an issue that is very much underplayed in commentary on the consequences of Obama's approach in 2009-10: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). A law like that which would significantly boost the protection for workers' rights to join unions has great potential for strengthening organized labor in the medium- and long-term, one of the biggest political boosts the Democratic Party could get. If Obama and the Democrats had pushed through the health care reform much more quickly and put a high priority on EFCA and comprehensive immigration reform, they could well have gotten both passed in the session of Congress now ending. And, who knows, they may have looked more effective, excited the base more to get out and vote for Democrats, and come out better in the 2010 elections. Hindery:

A staggering 55 million voters who voted for Members of Congress in November 2008 didn't vote for any Member in November 2010, and the critically important independent voters chose Republicans this year by a staggering 18-point margin. As I contend was also the case in 2008, the November 2010 election was again mostly about jobs and the economy -- there is simply no hiding the dismal real unemployment figures, which show an unemployment rate of 18.7% (not the 'official" figure of 9.6%), 29.9 million unemployed workers (not the 'official' 14.8 million figure), and a "jobs gap" of 21.9 million in order to be at full employment in real terms.
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