Smart, Not Good
by Deacon Blues
"It is not clear to me that President Obama actually enjoys politics the way Clinton did – all the ass-kissing and confrontation that you need to do to get things done. Obama clearly likes policy. But right now he still seems too cerebral for the situation. It’s not easy. You have to feel for him."
--James Carville, describing why a smart president isn't necessarily a good politician
President Obama rolled out an infrastructure program this week that was supposed to show he cared about jobs and the economy. He built it upon pro-business proposals and expectedly the GOP immediately dismissed it. In a worse sign, so did many members of his own party, who are afraid of their own shadows whenever more spending is on the table.
Empirically, the case for more spending to spur consumer demand is clear-cut. Even though the GOP and Tea Party message machine has to date successfully set the narrative that more spending is bad, Obama's critics have nothing of substance to offer in rebuttal as a job-producing alternative except more top-down tax cuts and jobs-related spending reductions, which the last eight years have shown to be a failure. Yet the GOP's grand plan of opposition and smear, coupled with the White House's alarming lack of message and political ability have led to a situation where the smartest people are about to lose the ability to fix things and the dumbest tools in the shed may be back controlling the agenda.
It didn't have to be this way. Matt Bai ran an excellent piece in yesterday's NYT about Obama's lost opportunity at the beginning of his term, when he had the large public support to actually fix things and make long-term changes that reflected what he campaigned upon.
Recall now the portentous moment when Mr. Obama assumed the presidency in 2009. In those first weeks, Mr. Obama had an approval rating that reached 70 percent, and he benefited from a clear public consensus that the United States had reached a cataclysmic moment of reckoning in its economic life — and that neither he nor his party had caused it.
That was a moment, perhaps, when Mr. Obama might have given one of his trademark orations to an anxious public, an opportunity to lay out the different dimensions of the economic crisis in a way that had eluded his predecessors. You could have imagined Mr. Obama’s explaining then that the country had to respond in two related but distinct ways: first by spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the short term to avoid a depression, and second by making a series of large-scale investments over time that would modernize the foundation of the economy.
So even after the campaign clearly showed that Obama's path to the presidency was built upon his economic message, he and Rahm learned the wrong lessons from the Clinton administration and chose to let Congress and his Wall Street-beholden economic team drive the car on (what should have been) the most important agenda item of his first term, rather than be bold for Main Street.
What happened, instead, was this: The administration turned control of the roughly $800 billion stimulus package over to Congress. Congress decided that the most expedient thing to do was to throw every kind of expenditure one could think of, short-term and long-term, into a single bill, because the public was willing to spend the money right then and the legislative politics required addressing the demands of disparate constituencies.
In doing this, Obama let the stimulus plan become political horse-trading way too early, rather than setting the terms of the solutions up front. There was plenty of support from seasoned economists for a large stimulus as early in the administration as possible, yet Obama's political instincts failed him when he decided to let the Wall Street crew around him argue for a smaller plan that might get GOP support, when it never did. A better politician may have seized the opportunity to not only go larger, but to also make the kind of two-track argument Bai talks about: the need to get broad public support for longer-term investments while showing Main Street a maximum commitment for short-term measures to increase job creation and consumer demand. Obama not only failed to take advantage of the crisis presented to him (unlike what Bush did with 9/11), but his timidity and subsequent actions rendered future efforts like this week's infrastructure plan DOA in the midst of a midterm election cycle.
Barack Obama is a very smart man with overrated political instincts. In that sense, he is the exact opposite of his predecessor. What this country needed in the first few months after the election was a smart man, who could speak well, and could seize a political opportunity to be bold and force his opponents to battle him with the status quo. Instead, this nice and smart man let a special interest-funded dysfunctional political body take the wheel in the false assumption that it would lead to bipartisanship, when in fact voters wanted to see Obama pursue what he campaigned on: real change.
Now, when the country needs more spending and smarter leaders to get the economy through these rough times and back to producing things instead of paper profits, we are saddled with an electorate that is about to vote for a return to the past.