Friday, July 29, 2011

Absence of Pretty Speeches Fails to Make the Heart Grow Fonder

Like the rest of us, Robert Reich is frustrated, disappointed, and fit to be tied by the charade about he debt ceiling going on in Washington. He's also upset with our President:

"[A]part of the answer lies with the President — and his inability or unwillingness to use the bully pulpit to tell Americans the truth, and mobilize them for what must be done. Barack Obama is one of the most eloquent and intelligent people ever to grace the White House, which makes his failure to tell the story of our era all the more disappointing and puzzling. Many who were drawn to him in 2008 (including me) were dazzled by the power of his words and insights — his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his autobiography and subsequent policy book, his talks about race and other divisive issues during the campaign. . . But the man who has occupied the Oval Office since January, 2009 is someone entirely different — a man seemingly without a compass, a tactician who veers rightward one day and leftward the next, an inside-the Beltway dealmaker who doesn’t explain his comprises in light of larger goals. . . . He is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home values, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining real wages — a decrease in consumption that’s directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But instead of explaining this to the American people, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit, and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised. ...Obama cannot mobilize America around the truth...because he is continuously adapting to the prevailing view. This is not leadership."

An equally frustrated friend, who views me as an unrepentent Obama lover, offered me a chance to speak up for the President. I'm not sure I want to, but since I've been paid to do worse, here goes.

I agree it's frustrating as all get out. We know, and Reich knows, that Obama knows that he could give a great speech about how the debt or the deficit is not the problem right now, that what the economy needs is government stimulus, followed by some increased taxation after the economy picks up, to reduce the deficit and ultimately the debt. [Ugh! doesn't sound very exciting, does it?] I also think he knows that's the right thing to do.

So the question is, why doesn't Obama use the bully pulpit to talk about this and promote understanding, mobilize the electorate and force more responsible action from Congress? I assume, but surely don't know, it's because his political instinct is that a) a speech, or ten, won't get the electorate mobilized on this, b) to the contrary, it might make him vulnerable to Republican demagoguery and lose him the election in a year, and c) even if there were more emails and letters to Congress, it wouldn't sway the Republicans to change their ways.

Hell, maybe the best tactic would be to say, fuck you Boehner, you wann'a play chicken: we won't raise the debt ceiling until you agree to more stimulus, single payer health care, and 70 percent marginal tax rate on income above $1 million! It really doesn't sound very adult, but maybe it would be better than compromising in the vain hope of prompting a sane Republican compromise. It might feel good for a bit, I'm skeptical it would be effective. Fact is, you can't fake this stuff, and the real radicalism happens to be on the right, not the left at this time.

I don't know what the right strategy is. I know it feels lousy to have the Tea Party caucus make the Dems and Obama look ineffective and like wimps. I also know it's easy to blog with great certainty from Berkeley, or to give advice from a cabinet post; it's harder when you have to pull it off, when it's your electoral ass (and ultimately the country's welfare) that's on the line. Or do we think the country would be better off if Obama gave some eloquent speeches now and got beat by Huntsman or Romney next November? Maybe Obama should land an F-16 at Bagram, announce "mission accomplished", and bring the troops home tomorrow. If only it were so easy!

I can't quarrel with the Reich article. He accurately captures our sentiment and frustration, and disappointment. But I also know Reich is a lousy prognosticator of the stock market and I suspect his nose for electoral politics is not as good as his sound analysis of the economics.

In the meantime, Jack Balkin has an interesting analysis of the debt ceiling end game: Treasury debt gets paid, and there is a partial default on Medicare payments, and other safety net obligations that quickly raise the political heat to where Congress raises the debt ceiling, just like they've done 76 times before. A trillion in cuts over 10 years is quickly reversed if you catch the electorate in the right mood. The bite of real cuts will get their attention a lot more than a pretty speech. If the mood changes, then a speech can make a real difference . . . and then I'd much rather have Obama in the White House than Huntsman or Romney!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Robert Reich and Surfing Analogies

In his recent post The Rise of the Wrecking Ball Right Reich says:

1. what government does that helps average people is now so deeply woven into the thread of daily life that it's no longer recognizable as government

2. We've had 30 years of relentless government-hating and baiting, supported by hundreds of millions of dollars from big business interests, convincing the public that government is evil.

3. There has been an abject failure of the Democratic Party - from the President on down - to make the case for why government is necessary

I think all these points are right, and it explains why making the case for government is tough. Yet it's clearly a job we must do. The reason we don't hear Obama or individual elected officials talk about the good things government does more often is that such talk doesn't get them elected. It's up to us to create a groundswell narrative of all the reasons why the social democratic state is worthwhile, worth keeping, worth improving, and worth paying for. We need a groundswell wave that politicians can ride. The wave is out there, made by economists like Reich, Krugman, De Long, and Cummings, and publications like the New York Review of Books and the New York Times. It's just not feeling bottom yet.

If politicians thought they could get votes by making the case, they would. There is a reason they are abject. Therefore, it's up to each one of us to do this: at work, on Facebook, in Church, on the beach, everywhere. The disadvantage we have is that big business won't help. I asked my friend who works at Morgan Stanley why they, as an organization, don't go on record to support additional stimulus to grow the economy, and then bring the deficit down responsibly when employment is up. Since that is what the economy needs, since that's the way to avoid double dips and lost decades, why would Morgan Stanley not support this? He could not provide an answer, but I suspect the answer is that double dips and lost decades are not necessarily bad for Morgan Stanley. This is less obviously true for the construction industry, and Apple, and Ford. Yet big business is generally chiming in with the Rush Limbaugh chorus; they are not touting the merits of Keynes and the social democratic state. When they feel Republicans have gone too far, as when they threaten the full faith and credit of the U.S. debt, they apply pressure discreetly. Why is that?

It would be a lot easier for us, and, yes, politicians too, to make the case that our government is generally worth preserving (and paying for) if we got some help from the business community. If Krugman and Reich are correct, and I think they are, this is in the long term best interest of big business. Why has the ride of big business pearled? To catch the next wave in the sweet spot, business doesn't need small government, it needs efficient and effective government that looks after everyone. A government that Grover Norquist can drown in the bathtub isn't good for business, and surfing is lousy in the bathtub!