Monday, October 15, 2012

Obama and the perils of centrism

Robert Kuttner: "Romney and Obama have each muddled their views -- but Romney does it in a way that helps him, while Obama's muddling helps the Republicans." (Muddled Ideology, Muddled Debate Huffington Post 10/15/2012)

Obama's centrist positioning, which should really be called center-right, if "conservatism" in the US hadn't decayed to Dixiecrat segregationism, is a substantive problem in this election that compounds whatever personal disinclination he may have to confront Republicans. As I've said before, I don't see that he's had any trouble confronting his own Democratic base.

And the central role that the notion of a Grand Bargain to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid plays for him is part of the problem. To jam home the differences between him and Romney, especially given the weak economy and the lack of obvious substantive differences on foreign policy between Obama and Romney, the Obama campaign needs to maximize the advantage that Democrats have built up over decades on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But he's constrained in that because of his desire for a post-election Grand Bargain.

Joe Biden last week in the Vice Presidential debate made the most of that advantage within the constraints of wording it so as not to rule out a Grand Bargain to cut benefits n Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. If they would flat-out declare that they would never allow such cuts, that would be far better. But Obama won't do that.

(I should note on foreign policy that in a binomial choice, the difference between the candidates are important. Romney's and Ryan aggressive, bellicose rhetoric on attacking Iran is a notable difference, though Obama's policy also carries an unnecessary degree of risking war.)

What Kuttner means by his comment in Romney's case is that his Etch-a-Sketch approach to changing his positions to try to please everybody makes him look phony and engenders distrust. He uses Romney's mealy-mouthing about his plans to gut Social Security and Medicare as an example.

But he also argues that neither Obama nor Biden have yet shot down that position as effectively as they could. Part of his explanation in Obama's case is personal: "Even after nearly four years of merciless pummeling by obstructionist Republicans, Obama is just not comfortable punching back."

Biden is better than Obama at framing potentially complex and confusing ideas in an accessible way, though not as good as Bill Clinton, who is a master at it. Kuttner sees Obama's weakness in that task, which he calls "the wonk problem," this way:

A lot Romney's lies involve manipulations with statistics. For instance, it is not possible to cut everyone's taxes by 20 percent without increasing the deficit, cutting valued programs, or giving the rich a tax-break -- or all three. There are just not enough loopholes to close to make up for $5 trillion dollars in new tax cuts. But Obama seems to have trouble offering straightforward rebuttal without descending into wonkery that leaves the audience unclear whose numbers to believe. This is not a function of the topic but of the president's own weak performance. The stuff isn't that inherently complex in the hands of an effective politician.
And he gets to the substantive policy core with this:

But the most important weakness is the Democrats own ideological muddle.

For instance, if Obama drew a bright line that Democrats will not under any circumstances cut Social Security or Medicare benefits, he would be offering a much clearer story and would have an easier time putting Romney on the defensive.

However, that is not the Obama position. The point where I wanted to throw the TV out the window was when Jim Lehrer tossed the president a nice softball to blast out of the park.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill.
You remember that tweak. They raised payroll taxes, cut benefits and raised the retirement age by two years. This is what Obama is embracing?
The good news for supporters of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is that the Presidential campaign gives the Democrats' maximum incentive to sound like they are defending benefits levels in those programs. Even if Obama's Grand Bargain positioning limits their effectiveness, the more they use a defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the campaign, the harder it will be to cut benefits on them in a Grand Bargain.

Although, as Kuttner notes, in the first debate Obama took a pass on defending Social Security at all!

Sadly, Kuttner is right in saying, "The problem here is not a lack of debating skills. Obama has been persuaded by the likes of Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson, Pete Peterson, Peter Orszag and company that cuts in Social Security will have to be part of a grand budget bargain. That's why he won't draw a clear, bright line."

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