It Was Lyndon Johnson in the Roosevelt Room with the Tax Cut!
I'm pretty confused by Robert Samuelson's column today. He's arguing that the press should be more skeptical of Barack Obama's policy initiatives, but the historical evidence he brings to the question seems peculiar:
All "reforms" do not succeed; some cause more problems than they solve. Johnson's economic policies, inherited from Kennedy, proved disastrous; they led to the 1970s' "stagflation." The "war on poverty" failed. The press should not be hostile, but it ought to be skeptical.
Mostly, it isn't. The idea of a "critical" Obama story is one about a tactical conflict with congressional Democrats or criticism from an important constituency. Larger issues are minimized, despite ample grounds for skepticism.
Huh? There's an argument to be made that the twin spending commitments of Vietnam and the Great Society caused some level of inflation. But I've never heard anyone blame them for the productivity slowdown that underpinned the era's stagnation. And that productivity slowdown -- a fall from 3 percentage points annually to 1.5 percentage points annually -- was the key confounding factor in the era's economic woes. If Samuelson has a theory on this, I'd like to hear it. (Dean Baker, in fact, is willing to extend a Nobel prize for the insight.) But it requires more than a simple assertion. And are we really absolving OPEC's embargo of any responsibility?
Similarly, the "war on poverty" might have failed to kill poverty, but it did a pretty good job wounding it. In 1959, 22.1 percent of Americans were beneath the poverty line. By 1973, 11.1 percent of Americans were impoverished. Medicaid has vastly increased access to health care among the poor. Head Start has done quite a bit to help children born into low-income households.
I do take his point on the nature of a "critical" story, however. But this isn't an Obama-specific problem. This is endemic to the press. Process stories tend to win out over policy stories. The positive coverage of Obama has focused intensely on high poll numbers, the disarray of Republicans, and the sense that his administration has momentum for its agenda. It has, in other words, been process-oriented also. A more negative approach would focus on squabbles between the administration and the Congress, or the administration and John McCain's twitter feed. It's really not as if the Bush-era featured a rigorous press corps obsessed with the outcomes of social policy. If the press turns against Obama, I'd expect a lot more stories on how Rahm Emmanuel's White House fell into angry dysfunction than on how the stimulus spending proved too backloaded to fully close the output gap.
(Photo credit: Wesleyan University.)
June 1, 2009; 2:05 PM ET
Categories: Economic Policy , History , Obama administration
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