Friday, June 15, 2012

Stephen Walt asks if we're looking at "George W. Obama"

Stephen Walt writes that "a good case could be made that his mistake was to act too much like George W. Bush and not enough like Barack Obama the candidate." (George W. Obama? Foreign Policy 06/01/2012) He gives some of the high points this way:

To be more specific, he spent too much time and money on Afghanistan, too much time sanctioning Iran (thereby driving up oil prices), too much time picking drone targets, and too much time on a Middle East peace effort that he abandoned as soon as AIPAC & Co. howled. Getting bin Laden was an achievement, but as I noted at the time, it wasn't going to win him any more votes than Bush 41 got for liberating Kuwait in 1991. He got a Nobel Prize because people liked his speeches, but his actual behavior was not that different from Bush's second term. At the same time, he did too little to stimulate the U.S. economy, and too little to constrain an unapologetic financial industry. And I'd argue he spent too much time and political capital getting a modest health care reform bill passed, one that will neither fix the U.S. health care system nor win him many votes in November. (I applaud the ambition, but I'd have gotten the economy rolling first and then done health care). Some of this clearly isn't his fault (i.e., Europe's economic doldrums are not his responsibility), but voters aren't likely to make distinctions like that if economic growth remains sluggish.
Cenk Uygar on The Young Turks of 06/14/2012 was more generous to Obama's speech yesterday than I was. His report mainly focused on comparing it favorably to Willard Romney's competing Ohio speech. And Obama's speech does compare favorably with Willard's. But Cenk didn't mention the repeated references to the deficit or the explicit mention of the Grand Bargain, Obama's proposal to cut benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Cenk did point out, though, that it's a real problem for Obama that the strong parts of his economic message are partially undercut by the fact that he hasn't been consistently making the point that the Cheney-Bush Administration had a horrible economic record or pressing for real accountability for bankers and mortgage wheeler-dealers who crashed the world economy in 2007-8.

Here's a segment from Eliot Spitzer's Viewpoint on the speech, Can Obama reboot his rhetoric on the economy? 06/14/2012:

The closing line from Reuters' Felix Salmon in that segment came out poorly ("sadly, what the American people want is not what's good for them"). He was talking about the popular perception that the federal budget is analogous to a personal or household budget, when in fact it isn't. As Paul Krugman has been relentlessly pointing out on his book tour the last few weeks, it's rational for a household with reduced income to reduce its expenditures. But if all the households and businesses do it at the same time, it only makes the problem worse. The federal government has to worry about the health of the entire economy, and in a depression like this needs to use fiscal policy to jump-start demand.

What Krugman says that no one mentions in the segment shown above is that one reason that analogy is so popular is that Obama himself has been using it. Instead of pointing to the need for the federal government to act in a counter-cyclical manner - not like an individual household - he's been talking about how if families are having to cut back, government needs to tighten its belt, too.

And it wasn't just after the 2010 election. Here is Obama in April 2009: "All across America, families are tightening their belts and making hard choices. Now, Washington must show that same sense of responsibility." (Obama urges belt tightening in Washington CNN 04/25/2009)

Now that we know how weak the economy still is and we see how a much bigger and long-lasting stimulus and one focused more directly on job creation was needed, it's sobering to see how Obama was putting a Calvinist, Angela-Merkel-like budget-balancing message front and center. This is the 04/25/2012 weekly address referenced in the CNN link:

Even during the interim between his election and inauguration, he was doing his postpartisan schtick, pepper-spraying his own message about the urgent need for stimulus with talk about cutting gubment spending, just like the Republicans he hoped would be his friends always do. (Ron Scherer, In switch, Obama emphasizes belt-tightening Christian Science Monitor 11/26/2008)

So he's made it very difficult for himself to credibly throw out the austerity rhetoric and emphasize jobs, jobs, jobs and to heck with the deficit. Assuming he even wanted to, which I'm guessing he doesn't. After all, the Grand Bargain to cut benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is still a major goal of his, apparently the centerpiece of his postpartisan dream. To accomplish that, he needs the austerity rhetoric. He's not just pushing for re-election. He's building a mandate for the Grand Bargain to cut benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to be enacted in the lame-duck session after the November election.

As Van Jones says, progressives have two big fights this year: one in November, one in December.

I would disagree with Walt on the health care issue. The big problem with it was that it didn't have a public option, which could have offset the unpopularity of the mandate to buy health insurance.

After seeing the health care fight and its aftermath, I've come to believe that a single-payer approach, aka, Medicare for Everyone, would be easier to justify even in conventional political terms than what even the Democrats now call "Obamacare".

It was also a mistake politically to leave the public option out of the plan that did pass. With the public option, the individual mandate would almost surely be less unpopular than it is. A mandate to participate is necessary for a mainly private-insurance based system to work. Because one of the most significant drivers of the cost of the US health system are people foregoing preventive care and postponing doctor's visit until a condition becomes serious; often the visit is then to an emergency room, which raises the expenses further.

As Cenk also pointed out in another segment yesterday, many individual aspects of the health care plan are popular. But Obama, in his trademark pre-compromising style, delayed implementation of most of the plan until 2014 out of concern for the 10-year cost projections. So if Willard gets elected President this year, he will have a chance to gut the health care reform before most of its popular provisions go into effect. Another combination of bad policy and bad politics resulting from Obama's bipartisan obsession.

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