Monday, June 27, 2011

President Obama Disappoints

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama demonstrated how good a politician he is.  He did not make any mistakes when Senator McCain tried to rattle him with his “campaign suspension” as the financial market crisis was worsening;  in fact, McCain’s tactic, which might have led an opponent with less political skill than Obama into making political errors, only ended up hurting McCain.  Also, Obama demonstrated how good he was in making political speeches, such as the one he made to turn around the bad publicity he had received concerning his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

In light of his obvious political skills, I am surprised by President Obama’s current lackluster political performance.  For example, take last week’s televised speech announcing a schedule of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.  Whatever one thinks about the policy, a clear problem with the speech is that it was boring.   Even though there was no surprise, since the substance had been already reported in the press, it would seem not that difficult for a speechwriter to make a speech about a current war interesting to listen to, and, for someone with Obama’s public speaking skills, to make one want to listen.  Perhaps he needs a live audience rather than a group of technicians and cameras to motivate him.  As it was, he looked like he was just going through the motions as he read from the teleprompter.   

It does seem that Obama just wants to play an inside game in Washington, and with the Republican majority in the House and the Republican’s blocking ability in the Senate, his political position is more difficult than it was last year.  But what Obama should know is that if you do not like the current political environment, then you should do your best to change it.  That does not need to wait for the next election, by which time it may be too late in any case.

On the wars this country is waging, the Administration has done a poor job of defining goals in Afghanistan and Libya.  If the goals are not terribly clear to the Administration, or if the Administration is divided, then Obama needs to fix that. In any case, the Administration needs to do a better job explaining the rationale for these military actions.  As it is, the goals in Afghanistan and Libya are not terribly clear, which is probably why the public seems to be increasingly skeptical of these military actions.  With Libya, the Administration has gotten itself into a tight corner by claiming that the military effort does not constitute “hostilities” for purposes of the War Powers Resolution, while it is becoming increasingly obvious that NATO is targeting Muammar el-Qaddafi.  If Qaddafi is killed in a NATO bombing raid, what then?  It will not be the end of the story.

In economic policy, the Administration has let the Republicans define the terms of the debate.  Maybe they believe by doing that, the Republicans will be tempted to overreach and hurting themselves. Representative Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal is an example of such overreach and has hurt the Republicans.  But everyone knows (or should know) that Ryan’s Medicare plan is going nowhere.   What is going somewhere is the notion that serious budget cutting must start now, because government spending “kills” jobs.  In an economy with as much slack as the one we are now experiencing, this is economic nonsense.  Paul Krugman, who continually derides the “Very Serious People” who make this argument on his blog, repeatedly makes the case that this is economic nonsense.  Also, as I noted in a previous post, current Princeton colleague of Krugman and former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder has made this case in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Why is Obama letting the Republicans dictate what is responsible economic policy?  The Administration’s counter to the Republicans is not that more fiscal stimulus is needed or even that the current level of stimulus needs to be maintained currently, but only that the rich should bear some of the costs of reducing the deficit in the form of higher taxes.  This is political timidity in the face of a public that is skeptical of deficit spending.  It may be too late politically to change that.  But the role of a political leader is not to just accept that the political consensus constrains policy options.  It is also the role of a political leader to change the political environment when that seems necessary.  The President, more than any other politician, has the ability to use the bully pulpit to change the political environment.  Obama has been amazingly timid in using the bully pulpit, in a way that President Reagan was not, and now Obama has to pin his hopes for reelection on two factors – that the unemployment rate will come down and that the Republicans will nominate a weak candidate for President.  Obama would seem to have what it takes to be an inspirational leader; it is a mystery why he has not used his talents to do this.

No comments:

Post a Comment