Friday, August 21, 2009

Made His Face Turn Blue

Allen and VandeHei's big piece today -- what Ambinder, who has a nice take on it, calls a premortem -- is a great example of the kind of stuff that people who hate the Washington political culture can turn to for confirmation. It's just awful.

As I said, Ambinder's take is pretty good, but I'll just focus on their fantasy of what Obama could have done:
So imagine if Obama had focused on fixing the economy, and...constructed his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a true, immediate stimulus without the pork and paybacks.

He then could have pushed through tougher regulation of financial institutions, making it clear people were paying for their sins, and would have a much harder time doing it again. This would have delighted the left and perhaps bought Obama more durable support among independents...

Add in some serious budget cuts, and Obama would have positioned himself as a new kind of liberal with the courage to tame Washington and Wall Street, as promised. Under this scenario, Obama might be getting more credit for the economic recovery that appears to be under way.

Apologies for the cliche, but...where to start? First, was it possible to construct a "true, immediate" stimulus "without pork and paybacks?" Well, no -- because Allen and VandeHei are here accepting the GOP spin hook, line, and sinker that, well, any spending at all is pork. Oh, and that the tax cuts in the stimulus just don't count. Now, one can make an argument against stimulus, or for certain types of spending, but there's no suggestion of that here. Instead, we're to believe that if only Obama had slashed spending, then nameless someone or someones might be giving him credit for economic recovery. Is that because budget cuts would have helped the economy recover? Is there any real economist who argues that "serious budget cuts" are the key to ending a recession?

Look, we know about this. We know that there are a lot of Republican leaders and Republican voters who believe that the correct answer to everything is budget cuts. I think it's probably also true that there are Democratic leaders and voters who believe that the correct answer to everything is increased spending, although those haven't been the leaders Democrats have nominated for president or Congressional leadership recently.

And then there's a group of Washingtonians who believe that balanced budgets are the solution to everything. That think that abstract budget cuts are a great thing -- not Republicans who have a legitimate argument that government shouldn't do certain things, but people who like to talk about sacrifice not because of specific benefits it brings, but just because they like the idea of sacrifice. And so Obama shouldn't get credit for what these pundits believe is an economic recovery, not because he didn't help make it happen, but because he didn't worship at the altar of balanced budgets and budget cuts.

Somehow, in Allen/VandeHei world, financial regulation that would make Paul Krugman happy was easy to do, and Obama just didn't bother. Somehow, in their world, sober and serious Republicans would have applauded a stimulus if only all that pork wasn't there, because we all know the GOP never supported earmarks, or, well, they did, but that apparently doesn't count either.

I don't know that Obama's choices have all been good ones; I think there's a case that can be made against moving forward with cap and trade (although are there really more liberals who were willing to wait on energy and the environment than there were liberals who were impatient for financial regulation?). There's always small stuff that could work out better, whether in specific negotiating steps, public statements, or bill provisions. But this type of article -- and this one in particular -- fails to appreciate just how hard governing is, and just how little control the president has about pretty much everything. Instead, it starts with a conclusion -- in this case, Obama may fail! It selects a whole bunch of decisions and describe why they were all wrong, paying no attention at all to the hazards that would be run had the decision gone the other way. And then it concludes that if only those decisions had gone the other way, the president would be in peachy shape.

The reality is usually much different. We have no idea right now whether Obama will succeed, fail, or (most likely) succeed in some things and fail in others. Some of his successes and failures will be the consequence of his choices; others will reflect the constraints of context, the consequences of other people's choices, or of external events that were far beyond his control.

Alas, part of what is beyond any president's control is a beltway media eager to pile on just slightly ahead of the conventional wisdom. So, with Obama's approval ratings down a bit (almost certainly because of the economy, not because of anything he's done), and with relatively few accomplishments in August (since it's, you know, August), and with the out-party sensibly and not-so-sensibly making as much noise as they can, conventional wisdom is turning from "Obama is Perfect!" to "Obama is Failing!" for a while. Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn't last and rarely affects much of anything, unless the president is so foolish as to pay attention to it.

And if there's one thing that Barack Obama has shown us, it's that he doesn't panic easily.

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