Friday, November 5, 2010

When the Supposed Audacious Lack Audacity

It is ironic that the author of The Audacity of Hope ends up not being audacious enough. But that is the charge Paul Krugman brings to bear on Barack Obama. Here is the key bit from Krugman's NY Times op-ed:
Mr. Obama’s problem wasn’t lack of focus; it was lack of audacity. At the start of his administration he settled for an economic plan that was far too weak. He compounded this original sin both by pretending that everything was on track and by adopting the rhetoric of his enemies.

The aftermath of major financial crises is almost always terrible: severe crises are typically followed by multiple years of very high unemployment. And when Mr. Obama took office, America had just suffered its worst financial crisis since the 1930s. What the nation needed, given this grim prospect, was a really ambitious recovery plan.

Could Mr. Obama actually have offered such a plan? He might not have been able to get a big plan through Congress, or at least not without using extraordinary political tactics. Still, he could have chosen to be bold — to make Plan A the passage of a truly adequate economic plan, with Plan B being to place blame for the economy’s troubles on Republicans if they succeeded in blocking such a plan.

But he chose a seemingly safer course: a medium-size stimulus package that was clearly not up to the task. And that’s not 20/20 hindsight. In early 2009, many economists, yours truly included, were more or less frantically warning that the administration’s proposals were nowhere near bold enough.
Worse, there was no Plan B. By late 2009, it was already obvious that the worriers had been right, that the program was much too small. Mr. Obama could have gone to the nation and said, “My predecessor left the economy in even worse shape than we realized, and we need further action.” But he didn’t. Instead, he and his officials continued to claim that their original plan was just right, damaging their credibility even further as the economy continued to fall short.

Meanwhile, the administration’s bank-friendly policies and rhetoric — dictated by fear of hurting financial confidence — ended up fueling populist anger, to the benefit of even more bank-friendly Republicans. Mr. Obama added to his problems by effectively conceding the argument over the role of government in a depressed economy.

I felt a sense of despair during Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union address, in which he declared that “families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” Not only was this bad economics — right now the government must spend, because the private sector can’t or won’t — it was almost a verbatim repeat of what John Boehner, the soon-to-be House speaker, said when attacking the original stimulus. If the president won’t speak up for his own economic philosophy, who will?
The point of the above criticism is not to drag Obama through the mud. It is meant to get Obama to "wake up and smell the roses". You would have thought that with the mid-term election loss he would have gone to his first post-election press conference with a new sense of mission and purpose. But he didn't. He still doesn't "get it". He is still talking of "compromise" with an opponent who only dangles compromise in order to get concession after concession to lure Obama into giving up and essentially going over to their side. That is plain nutty. But this Republican strategy has been working and continues to work. Krugman is calling on Obama to "buck up" and show some real audacity. It is fine to write a book about "the audacity of hope" but he needs to deliver.

Here's Krugman's "bottom line" for Obama:
Of course, there’s a subtext to the whole line that health reform was a mistake: namely, that Democrats should stop acting like Democrats and go back to being Republicans-lite. Parse what people like Mr. Bayh are saying, and it amounts to demanding that Mr. Obama spend the next two years cringing and admitting that conservatives were right.

There is an alternative: Mr. Obama can take a stand.

For one thing, he still has the ability to engineer significant relief to homeowners, one area where his administration completely dropped the ball during its first two years. Beyond that, Plan B is still available. He can propose real measures to create jobs and aid the unemployed and put Republicans on the spot for standing in the way of the help Americans need.

Would taking such a stand be politically risky? Yes, of course. But Mr. Obama’s economic policy ended up being a political disaster precisely because he tried to play it safe. It’s time for him to try something different.
Obama is a smart guy. I sure hope he learns the lesson and comes out fighting.

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