Monday, January 25, 2010

The spending freeze

From what I'm reading, liberals are freaking out and conservatives are unimpressed. President Obama might wind up getting it from both sides on this one. But looking at the figures, it seems pretty clear that even if you believe in Keynesian economics (as I do), and therefore believe in countercyclical spending and pump-priming, cutting $25 billion a year from the budget (starting next year!) isn't really going to bring the economy crashing down, necessarily. It's too small to do that. And if it prevents further action on slashing federal budgets for the moment, it might well wind up doing a net good for the economy, even from a Keynesian point of view. Once the economy recovers it will be important to revisit the deficit, but this looks to me like Obama trying to stave off pro-cyclical cuts, not initiate them, in order to keep the conservative wing of his caucus in line viz. the stimulus.

This looks like classic Obama to me: pressure from conservatives in Congress is building up to do something about the debt, and Obama has positioned himself between the left and the right deftly by coopting a conservative idea in a way that liberals might be able to live with, depending on how its done. He's calling the right's bluff, basically, and if successful he'll likely preserve his accomplishments while regaining support from the center. If Republicans reject his opening offer (which isn't entirely unreasonable of them to do, considering their position), he'll be able to say that he tried it and that the Republicans didn't even want to negotiate, because they're not serious in their complaints. That could be damaging, because it happens to be true. The real question seems to be whether he's going to be able to thread the needle rhetorically by distinguishing between (important, necessary) stimulus spending and (presumably unnecessary) discretionary spending. I have no idea if he will be able to do that--or to convince liberals that he's not gone Hoover all over them--but the dude is a clutch player and knows his way around a podium, so I wouldn't bet against him.

Ultimately, if this gambit works, he'll have humiliated and discredited the right. If not, he'll have pissed off a large chunk of his base for (next to) nothing. This interpretation does lend some credence to Andrew Sullivan's notion that Obama is getting ready to fight. I must say, though, that even though I think I understand why the administration is doing this, I'm not sure it's a good idea. Obama is acting as though he has infinite credit with his activist contingent and the base, and the truth is that I'm hardly sure that's earned. He could be opening himself up to a challenge from the left (perhaps from Howard Dean), which would not be successful but would be ugly. Most of the left are going to hear "spending freeze" and link it to the despised John McCain, and figure that Obama is doing a complete U-Turn on Keynesian economics, when it seems to me that the opposite is what is really happening. A lot of these folks just don't feel that he's achieved anything for them, or that he much cares about their concerns. I don't agree with either claim, but I suspect things would be different if Robert Gibbs had announced the WH's full support for the Senate bill and if Obama were ducking into offices on Capitol Hill to press Congressmen to vote for the thing. He might well back both. Still, considering that Obama is backing a deficit commission and a spending freeze, even though the former will almost certainly fail and the latter will not amount to much, it's not entirely unreasonable for progressives to feel like they're being leveraged for a bout of triangulation, much the way they were during the Clinton years. Whether all this sinks in will depend on whether Obama offers a strong defense of stimulus/jobs bill/spending in general in his State of the Union. Indeed, I suspect he will, and the left's outlandish anger at Obama for a spending freeze will likely make him more popular with the center, and should thus further damage the right. My guess that there won't even be any such freeze, that the Republicans will oppose it unanimously in order to prevent Obama from winning a victory on spending, but that they'll give Obama a bat and ball to attack the filibuster and the right's unseriousness on this issue. Possibly.

Sullivan has asserted repeatedly that Obama is running the government basically like George H. W. Bush did, which strikes me as true. But while there is much to like in this approach (though obviously the elder Bush lost in 1992 due to some extent to lukewarmness from the base), I think it's a cop-out to some degree. There's a thin line between independence and aloofness, between pragmatism and expediency. The image that Obama needs to leave us with is that of a Happy Warrior, instead of a burrowed technocrat. We'll see how Obama presents himself on Wednesday.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.