The Hole In Obama's Pragmatism Bucket

Over at Hullabaloo, Digby catches a POLITICO piece on some recently-developed Obama administration strategy on the economic/labor (jobs) front:

Politico is reporting that the Obama campaign is changing its strategy in light of the fact that the unemployment numbers are still so bad. It claims that he will make a hybrid pitch:

Democratic strategists say that means adopting an ungainly three-pronged political approach: Talking up economic gains since the darkest days of 2008 and 2009, highlighting a modest job-creation agenda blocked by Republicans and making the case that things would be far worse if the GOP were in charge.

Above all, he must avoid even the slightest hint of triumphalism on the economy — no missions have been accomplished — to avoid angering Americans still struggling to find jobs.

I know POLITICO is supposed to be a serious, buttoned-down online-newspaper (as opposed to us DFH bloggers with foul mouths and mud on our shoes), but I think even for them, the phrase “ungainly” is soft-pedaling it to a degree that borders on doing a disservice to the reader in terms of accurate description. Digby puts it rather more bluntly and pithily, and then gets to the heart of the problem with the pragmatic “no-drama” approach favored by this White House team since the very beginning:

Gosh that sounds a lot more complicated than Hope and Change.

But this is not exactly surprising is it? The “Morning in America” strategy has been obvious for some time and there was always a huge risk it wasn’t going to work. In fact, the unwavering belief in it is as faith based as that group who thought the world was ending on May 21st.

I don’t think the Obama administration doesn’t want positive change, but I do think they made a series of assumptions about how they could work toward achieving that change at the outset of this administration which have proven to be (depending upon which specific assumption we’re considering) anywhere between partially and spectacularly incorrect and/or wrongheaded. The assumption Digby points out here is one of the most pervasive and most incorrect and wrongheaded of them all: that reaching for the “coulds” instead of the “shoulds” (as a recent intra-economists’ debate had it) would be all that was needed to get things back on track. That there was no need to run the risk of appearing to engage in demagoguery, FDR-style, by saying things on the order of “I welcome their hatred” or by relentlessly painting the GOP as the party of not just no, but of no ideas (at least, no constructive ones).

The Obama team seems to have figured that the risks of “going big” from the beginning on taking a stand about putting many core Democratic values into practice outweighed the potential rewards. They seemed to feel an almost instinctive distaste for the kind of verbal pugilism that would have laid blame squarely where it belonged for the financial crisis that still surrounds us today: at the feet of the banksters and CDO/CDS speculators and their GOP allies in Congress who worked overtime trying to thwart reform and weaken regulation at nearly every turn. To this day, I do not understand the White House’s strategy; perhaps the White House figured that because there may have been some Democrats complicit in those problems that being too aggressive would come back to hurt them as well. Perhaps they simply thought that moderate measures would eventually get the economy moving again. Actually, as both Digby and POLITICO point out, that’s not just “perhaps,” it’s clearly what the White House team thought. I share POLITICO and Digby’s disbelief that the White House would have consciously embarked on a strategy they thought wouldn’t work – or even one they thought had a decent likelihood of failure. Ergo, they must have figured – as Digby says – on “morning in America” at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The real hole in the bucket of that strategy though, is not just evident when the strategy doesn’t work as advertised or expected. By itself, that gives the opposition a legitimate club with which to beat the President come next year: he did things that didn’t work is always an effective campaign tool. There’s a second, possibly even larger hole besides that obvious one, though: the opportunity cost of the road not taken. POLITICO sums it up perfectly and succinctly:

By ceding the argument to Republicans that the deficit is the problem, Obama helped steer the focus in Washington to cutting government spending, robbing the White House of its ability to argue for more stimulus measures. At the same time, the rise in fuel prices over the past six months has offset efforts late last year to boost consumer spending and job creation.

I’ve no way of knowing for certain, and it’s even more certain he’d never confirm such a thing even if it’s 100% true, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s a big part – perhaps the single biggest part – of why Jared Bernstein left the White House: because he could see that his chances of making any material headway with the argument that we needed to push for more stimulus, perhaps even a WPA-style program of (desperately needed) infrastructure building, to arrest the slide and jolt the economy out of its doldrums, were fast declining and approaching zero.

Now, without another enormous external shock (such as another huge stock market crash or unemployment spiking dramatically and quickly back up to late-2008 levels, the White House can no longer make that argument. They could have in 2009 – indeed, a very large chunk of Obama’s enthusiastic support in that election quite likely expected him to – or at the very least would not have been surprised had he done so. But the cost of embarking upon the much more-moderate path of ceding the question of revenue vs austerity to the GOP and the tea party now is that Obama cannot credibly pivot back to a position he could, and should, have taken from the beginning. That’s why instead, we get a pivot to this new approach that even POLITICO can recognize as “ungainly” (since that’s what it IS): because it’s the only position that the White House can now take without seeming either previously clueless or enormously hypocritical/waffling/insincere…or all three.

Refusing to go after the banksters on RICO or other criminal charges, pursuing a stimulus that simultaneously demanded a huge chunk of deficit spending but fell short of the amount that would have truly had a shot at turning things around, keeping “too big to fail” in existence so that the possibility of another 2008-like crash is ever-present and most smart analysts not only know it but halfway expect it – these all represent lost opportunities, areas where there is no realistic “going back.” And it leaves the White House in the ridiculous and untenable position of having to try to talk up economic gains which, while measurable, have benefitted corporations far more than individuals (especially with corporate America still sitting on so much liquid cash), while at t

he same time making sure not to appear to crow about the economy because – to borrow POLITICO’s phrasing – “no missions have been accomplished.”

That is, unless one speaks in the hypothetical negative of what was prevented from happening, of how much worse it might potentially be today, were it not for Obama policies. I don’t say this to suggest there mightn’t be some truth to such lines of argument. Although the truth is that it’s impossible to know for certain where we’d be today without the steps the White House did take, I’d say it’s valid to argue things would likely be worse. But how much worse is an “angels-on-a-pin” question; both unanswerable and boring. Somewhat worse? Almost certainly. Yet, for a White House that swept into office on a wave of positivity and can-do spirit and hope for real change to the nightmare we were in the thickest part of at that time, that kind of appeal is hardly inspiring or even anything to put on a political résumé: “PROBABLY kept things from getting worse.”

I share Digby’s guess that even with such uninspiring messages as this, from the vantage point of today, it’s hard to see how Obama doesn’t get reelected. But that’s less a function of the policy triumphs he’s eked out on the economic and labor fronts and more a reflection of the GOP’s ongoing horror show. That’s good, I suppose: the difference between Obama’s record and the increasing lunacy of the GOP’s ideas and candidates isn’t subtle. Many – if not most – Americans would seem to much rather have Obama again than any Republican, no question. But the reason they’re not even more enthusiastic, and making this a contest that won’t even be close (as well as all the down-ticket races) is because unemployment is still sky-high, the financial system is still horribly fragile and shot through with bad debt and most people not only can feel these things in a personal way, but also can sense what might have been possible, had not the Obama administration once more metaphorically rushed to meet the Republicans halfway – more than halfway – on the austerity issue. And I especially agree with this closing paragraphs of Digby’s:

When you are presiding over an epic economic meltdown policy substance matters. And if you can’t get the right policy it’s equally important that you don’t get blamed for the wrong one. Depending on “the cycle” or “the markets” to magically fix things just in time for the re-election campaign while you give lip service to your opposition isn’t a serious way to govern. I know it’s hard and that this lunatic opposition makes almost everything you try to do futile. But by failing to make the case, to prepare people for the worst because of it, they’re now left holding the bag.

Ask people on the left who’ve been paying attention over the last decade – even the last few years – what they think the one accomplishment that could be of greatest benefit to the country would be, and you’d probably hear a variety of responses. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the most popular among them, upon reflection, was to discredit this venal and pernicious form of insane Rand-worship and authoritarian cultism that’s been masquerading as respectable conservatism in the GOP in America ever more strongly since the days of Reagan. “It all flows from that,” you might hear – from the consciously think-tank-bred strategies cooked up in the basements of the Heritage Foundation and AEI and other right-wing noise-machine “brain-trusts.” It was allowing these ideas to take root that caused a putatively Democratic President to sign multiple pieces of legislation repealing bedrock Depression-era regulations that kept our financial system free of catastrophic crashes for nearly fifty years. And it’s these same disingenuous and dishonest ideas that continue to set our country back and poison the political dialogue today. Most progressives and liberals would give anything to see those ideas defeated by the iron jaws of reality.

Sadly, banishing those ideas permanently (or at least for another couple of generations, until more people with no experience of them reach voting age) is a two-step process. Neither step can be skipped. The first step, the GOP has done for us: they ruined the economy, bogged us down in illegal and pointless wars of choice, and various other fruits of their ideology. The public was ready to hear a message of: THAT’S what’s been wrong this whole time. In some ways, the collapse of so much at the end of the Bush Presidency accomplished that all on its own, as surely as sticking a toddler sticking his hand into the flame on the stove serves, without mommy having to discuss it, to show the toddler that his idea that the flame is pretty and therefore would be neat to touch is simply a bad, bad idea.

In such a simple example, however, even for a child’s comprehension, it’s impossible to conclude anything except that the flame hurt and touching it is a bad idea. Nothing else could possibly be responsible for the hurt he experiences. Unfortunately, in the case of complex political and financial events, closing that loop of “this was a HORRIBLE idea” requires more than just allowing people space to see whose ideas caused the wreckage. To make it really stick, what’s needed is a strong, consistently argued opposing message that shows a better way. But it’s not even enough to ARGUE that message; it has to be enacted…or at least it has to be passionately and seriously attempted. As Digby notes, maybe [the President] couldn’t have gotten any [further] stimulus anyway, but by succumbing to deficit fever [the White House] sure as hell lost their argument that the Republicans are the ones obstructing job growth with their insistence on austerity.

If Obama is reelected in 2012, as I suspect he will be, it may be partially because enough voters can see how insane the GOP has become and how destructive their policies both have been and would be if voters returned them to greater power. But it won’t be because many voters still believe President Obama is likely to deliver – or is even all that interested in – the kind of sweeping, fundamental change he alluded to enough on the campaign trail last time which caught people’s eyes and their natural inclination to prefer hope over despair. That opportunity – at least with this President and this set of Congressional Democrats (barring another major catastrophe and a sharp change in approach) – is sadly gone. That’s the real missed opportunity of the Obama age: the squandered chance to drive the bats of insanely destructive Randian nonsense out of the national belfry conclusively and, hopefully, permanently. Or at least for another fifty years of peace and growing, shared prosperity. And that’s a shame.

One thought on “The Hole In Obama's Pragmatism Bucket

  1. Ah, this has been my lament for about a year now. I ‘hoped’ Obama would have a response to the Reagan era philosophies which continue dominate the national psyche: government is always bad, taxes are always bad, deregulation is always good, etc.

    I now don’t think the issue is that Obama or the Dems are afraid to articulate a different response. I think the truth is they privately chant the Reagan mantra too. Remember all those “Reagan Democrats”? Where do you think they are? On social issues, the matter is more clear. But when it comes to economics, I truly believe that no one has dismantled the myths of Reaganomics in a way that resonates powerfully with people and politicians alike.

    I could go on – it’s more complicated than how I just laid it out – but it’s late.

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