Monday, March 9, 2009

Falling off the Tightrope?

Here is a question I'd like to pose to conservatives who are starting to lay blame for the current economic crisis at the feet of Barack Obama:

I understand that you and some of your fellow conservatives have begun laying blame for the current economic crisis at the feet of Barack Obama. Barack Obama has been president less than 60 days. When America was attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush had been president already for about seven months. Are you ready to accept that America's vulnerability on September 11 was George Bush's fault, given that he had been in office more than three times as long as Obama?
Of course, you're not likely to see today's mealy mouthed journalists ask such a question of a Republican guest, but, still it would be nice to see someone like Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow do so.

This is not to say that there is no legitimate criticism of Obama's handling of the current economic crisis. There is. But there is none coming from the GOP side of the aisle. Quite the contrary, it's clear that those most responsible for the worsening of the current economic crisis are also those who stand the most to gain from it. A quick look at the economic prescriptions that the GOP is putting forward reveals quite clearly that what the opposition party proposes are not measures to fix the economy. Instead, they stand before us as a witch who has taken a more seductive form and is holding out a poisoned apple meant instead to hex us. The notion that freezing spending in the midst of the severest economic downturn in four generations is a prescription for economic recovery, for instance, is beyond absurd. Likewise, the idea of responding to a liquidity crisis with a tax break for upper income earners is just dumb. In a faltering economy dominated by a crisis of confidence handing out tax breaks to upper income earners merely stimulates saving on their part, and that's not what we need now. What we need is for the government to fund projects that businesses will bid for. You don't stimulate an economy in a crisis such as this one by giving people money to stuff into their mattresses. You want people to have to go out and earn that money, and the only way to do that is to fire up your business and compete for it.

The criticisms of Mr. Obama's plan that hold more weight are those coming from the left, such as the criticisms of Paul Krugman, for instance. In Today's New York Times Krugman worries that Obama has not taken full advantage of the political capital he earned through the campaign and the elections to ram through the sorts of radical measures that Krugman feels are necessary to pull the economy out of its funk:

Sooner or later the administration will realize that more must be done. But when it comes back for more money, will Congress go along?

Republicans are now firmly committed to the view that we should do nothing to respond to the economic crisis, except cut taxes — which they always want to do regardless of circumstances. If Mr. Obama comes back for a second round of stimulus, they’ll respond not by being helpful, but by claiming that his policies have failed.

So here’s the picture that scares me: It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up. Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.

But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts. And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.
One of my chief worries about Barack Obama is that he may take the whole notion of "bi-partisan cooperation" a little too seriously. Bi-partisanship is a slogan... or at least that's all it should be in this political and economic climate. It most certainly is to the GOP, and has been for as long as one can remember. The term "bi-partisan cooperation" is a weapon. The Republicans know this. It is not an ideal in any real sense, but rather, the lack of it is a charge to be leveled against the opposition regardless of the reality of the situation or the GOP's own recent history of rigid ideological hegemony. To conservatives the term "bi-partisan" is simply one more bullet in a veritable arsenal of disingenuous rhetorical bullets. When the party that instituted an illegal, ideologically motivated purge of the Justice Department and packed the Federal Judiciary with dangerous ideologues charges the Democrats of not acting in a bi-partisan fashion, one knows that the words have no real meaning beyond their intended rhetorical impact.

I am heartened when Nancy Pelosi snaps back at GOP hypocrites who shamelessly play the "bi-partisan" card by reminding them that Democrats won the last election, not the GOP, and that they "should be thankful for what [they] have." I am heartened when Obama notes that before there can be true bi-partisan consultations, the opposition must have something constructive to add to the debate. The implicit message is that the President understands that current GOP talking points are aimed at undermining our nation's economic recovery, and are not a serious attempt at improving our situation. I am less heartened, however, by what Krugman and other commentators see as overly cautious half-steps that will only lessen the impact of, but not fully avert the impending, serious, economic crisis.

There are, two ways, it would seem, to walk across a tightrope*. You can either size it up and attempt to leap across it in a few swift bounds, or you can take it slow and easy, gauging every deliberate step while trying to maintain your balance through intense concentration and self-control. Barack Obama seems to be taking the latter course as he tackles the nation's problems. Rather than taking advantage of a national crisis and substantial political capital tp ram through passage of his agenda as Bush did after 9/11, the Obama team is carefully and deliberately sizing up the problem and making outward signs of bi-partisan outreach. It is not entirely clear why he is doing this. Perhaps his team is studying the complexities at hand in an attempt to devise politically feasible solutions to our problems. Perhaps he has a genuine hope that the GOP will come through with a genuine attempt at constructive bi-partisanship. It's hard to say which is the answer, but one hopes it is the former and not the latter. It would be quite shocking, to be perfectly honest, to discover that the saavy political player who defeated the formidable Hillary Clinton in the primaries and crushed John McCain in the general election, was at heart so naive.

*No, I've never walked across a tightrope. Yes, I'm completely making this up.

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