Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Posted at 9:39 AM ET, 01/20/2011

If Obama wants to be bold, he should be bold

By Ezra Klein

PH2011010706469.jpg

Peter Baker has a lot of juicy tidbits about the frequent infighting and petty spats that split the White House economic team over the past two years, but the individual who comes off worst in the article is not Larry Summers or Christina Romer or Peter Orszag or Rahm Emanuel. It's President Obama.

Baker opens with an anecdote from just before Christmas. Obama is sitting with his economic advisers to go over ideas for the State of the Union. He wanted a bold idea to bring down unemployment. But he didn't like anything his advisers were offering up. “You know, guys,” he said, according to someone in the room, “I’ve told you before, I want you to come to me with ideas that excite me.”

But it's not until a few paragraph later that we learn what Obama actually meant: He wanted "ways to juice the economy that are exciting, effective and politically viable." According to one adviser in the meetings, “The president wanted to lower unemployment but didn’t see a way to get more money out of Congress. He grew frustrated because the economic team didn’t have that magic combination.” Another said that Obama “was really frustrated that there weren’t solutions on the cheap.”

Economic advisers are also political advisers. So it's not that Summers or Sperling or Geithner or Goolsbee shouldn't be trying to pick the congressional lock for Obama. But Obama shouldn't be leaving it up to them. If the president wants to go bold on job creation, he needs to go bold on job creation. The votes may not be there now, but perhaps it's worth mounting a very public effort to get them there. At the State of the Union, say. And if Republicans block the proposals, well, sometimes the best way to show the public where you stand on something is to go down fighting for it.

Losing the House doesn't release the Obama administration from the responsibility to get things done, of course. And the White House is acutely aware that when they throw their weight behind a policy, the GOP often turns against that policy. One of the reasons the payroll-tax holiday wasn't part of the administration's pre-election jobs push was so that it would remain acceptable to Republicans when the two sides came together to cut some post-election deals.

But that strategy only applies to policies Republicans are willing to pass. There's plenty of good -- even exciting and effective -- legislation that the GOP won't move unless the public forces them to move it. For those ideas that are outside the current congressional consensus, the right question for it isn't "are there the votes" so much as "is this a good idea?" and "can we convince the people?" One of those questions is for Obama's economic team. But the other is for Obama himself.

For the first two years of his administration, Obama benefited from huge Democratic majorities that allowed him to get things done by locating the senator who would be the 60th vote in the Senate and aiming legislation right between the whites of his or her eyes. Those days are over. Now the question is whether the legislative pragmatism that defined Obama's administration so far was a smart strategy based on the math of a Democratic majority or the administration's only strategy based on the temperament of Barack Obama. You can have bold and exciting or you can have politically viable. You can't always have both.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak.

By Ezra Klein  | January 20, 2011; 9:39 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Wonkbook: House GOP votes to repeal, but not to replace
Next: The history of economics in one sentence

Comments

You're starting to grasp why some of us older folks are pessimistic to the point of cynicism.

I'll add one more point: the President is myopic if he thinks that, at the end of the day, the base will stand with him on every issue. The enthusiasm gap, glaring in both the midterms as well as the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, is a real thing that will plague him in '12 if he continues to offer moderate GOP economic proposals as the way to recover. At some point the base will rebel -- probably if he guns for the social safety net after allowing the Bush tax cuts (and especially the odious estate tax cut) to continue. We'll know more after the SOTU.

The one thing that has always baffled me is the President's disdain for his base -- probably more entrenched, now that his centrism is helping to boost his approval number among independents.

Posted by: scarlota | January 20, 2011 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Great post and analysis Ezra. I too was struck by the "Obama “was really frustrated that there weren’t solutions on the cheap.”" quote. Reminds me a lot of how he likes to dismiss a large swath of politics as being about "false choices" instead of involving real tradeoffs.

The other obvious thing that was completely overlooked in the Peter Baker article was the administrations response to the actual mortgage and foreclosure crisis and not just the unemployment situation resulting from it. I would have liked to have seen the responses from his economic team about why they didn't support judicial mortgage modification (aka bankruptcy cramdown) back in 2009 and instead went with programs like HAMP which have been completely ineffective so far.

Posted by: jnc4p | January 20, 2011 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Obama has no desire to try anything that's poitically difficult. He doesn't like fighting for political causes. He wants things to be easy.
Picked a bad time to be President, he did.

Posted by: rick_desper | January 20, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

"For those ideas that are outside the current congressional consensus, the right question for it isn't "are there the votes" so much as "is this a good idea?" and "can we convince the people?""

Crucial and too little understood point.

One of the biggest suboptimalities of just governing by polls. Just because the public doesn't strongly support something good now, doesn't mean you can't persuade them. You may be able to persuade them very well if you really try using the great power of the Presidential bully pulpit. And even if you fail to pass the bill, you may really persuade a lot of people so that long term you're able to succeed and do great good.

Reagan had an enormous effect on this country over the last generation (sadly in a way that caused grievous harm and decline) because he constantly tried to persuade, and not just on one specific bill or issue, but on the whole narrative. And Reagan initially failed at this. He was initially considered (rightly) too extreme and simpleminded, but he kept plugging away to persuade, using that acting talent, and over the long run he had a profound influence on America over an entire generation, and counting.

Obama is always too scared to do this. But he is patient. Perhaps if he gets a second term, he will really, and smartly, try for greatness, really try to confront the toxic Republican narrative head on.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 20, 2011 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I can't really agree with the nice comforting bromide that it's not the economists' fault; it's Obama's.

One of the major problems that the Great Recession has revealed is the dreadful state of economic practice and theory.

Why don't economists have answers to questions? Why don't they know which works better, deficit spending or tax cuts. They've allowed themselves to become shills and ideologues who contort their high-falutin' math into whatever idea they seek to prove.

It sure seems to me after this much time and the huge growth in tenured professorships in economics, they would have some idea of which end is up and .... they don't.

Some of it is so bad their are probably Nobel prizes that ought to be given back. Look at the failure of rational expectations, monetarism, econometrics. Looks good on paper for a couple years and then oops.

In fact, your subsequent post econ as two parts wonder drug and one part snake oil almost certainly illuminates exactly where the problem is. The ratio has been tilting toward 1:2 in recent years.

Econ is a mode of thought that needs radical reformation. Fortunately reformation is getting underway but there's a long way to go.

Posted by: etfmaven | January 20, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

@rick_desper wrote:
"Obama has no desire to try anything that's poitically difficult...Picked a bad time to be President, he did."
.
Really? Health care reform wasn't 'politically difficult'?
.
As for 'picked a bad time', how about 'picked a bad President to follow'?
.
I'm one of those ardent liberal supporters, but information like Erza is presenting and other posters have said are why 2012 will be the battle between the Dem 'enthusiasm gap' and the GOP 'fear machine', not about actual issues and solutions. If the former is greater than the latter, he loses.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 20, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Damn, where on earth did Obama find Ernie from "My Three Sons"?

Adding him to the Economic Council was a good move though, since he couldn't do worse than Romer and Summers, regardless.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 20, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

"For those ideas that are outside the current congressional consensus, the right question for it isn't "are there the votes" so much as "is this a good idea?" and "can we convince the people?""

I honestly wonder whether it matters what the public wants any more. The public wanted a "public option." Didn't matter. The public wanted to end the tax cuts for high-end income. Didn't matter. The plain fact is, "the public" doesn't vote on bills, legislators do. And unless and until "the public" starts translating what they want done into votes for legislators who will DO that, any plan that depends on what "the public" wants is just wishful thinking.

In today's America, "the public" votes for the politician who massages their anger and greed the best, regardless of that politician's past performance, regardless of what that politician might reasonably be expected to do. And this has been going on for YEARS. Is it any wonder that so many people don't even bother to vote any more, let alone get involved in the political process?

Posted by: KarenJG | January 20, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

The anecdote says it all: "Guys, excite me."
Nothing captures clueless vapidity better.
Where are the adults?

Posted by: happyacres | January 20, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

When I read the blogs, everything is about the Congressional he-said/she-said rumor and posturing mill. Both parties excel in this arena. But then every so often I'll read or hear a story about some seemingly minor rules change that makes a huge difference to a group of people. It seems as though there is a vast world of rules-making, rules-interpretation, and regulatory application that is entirely shielded from Congressional obstruction. Given this, I find it hard to believe that somewhere in the bowels of the Treasury Department, Labor Department, SEC, or FTC there aren't some arcane rules just lying there that could be used more effectively to stimulate job creation.

Posted by: willows1 | January 20, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I don't understand how Obama could inspire so many on the campaign trail, yet act and think so timidly as a president. It's as if he lost faith in his own abilities.

It's very puzzling.

Posted by: sufi66 | January 20, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Ezra joked, "If the president wants to go bold on job creation, he needs to go bold on job creation."
-------------------------------------------
LMAO. Obie only knows how to destroy private sector jobs. He is CLUELESS as to what gov policie changes would promote private sector job growth.

Posted by: illogicbuster | January 20, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

@sufi66:
I hear you. I suspect a lot of it is that on the campaign trail you have mostly 'dreamers' since it's about projecting the best possible ideas regardless of viability or implementation.
.
Once in office, the 'dreamers' get subjected to the realities of governing and you stop reaching for the pie in the sky because stuff has to actually get done. Given the discord in the country at the start, Obama probably focused too much on the image of being a compromiser rather than a forceful leader.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 20, 2011 12:02 PM | Report abuse

@illogicbuster:
Perhaps you should reference the 'bikini graph' showing jobs being created right after Obama took office. And yes those 'created' jobs are actually reductions in the number of being lost.
.
By your definition, if a plane is going straight down, any reduction in it's descent rate as the pilot pulls out of the dive is evidence the pilot is causing the dive in the first place.
.
Talk about 'illogical'.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 20, 2011 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Willows1, this is "he said, she said" reporting. And second hand to boot (linking to Peter Baker's article). Yet another bubble-minded take on macro-economics, as if the White House (or Congress for that matter) can magically make the economy better.

Posted by: nickthap | January 20, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

News flash for Mr. Klein - the government does NOT create jobs! The Do-Nothing Stupid Party can indirectly have an effect by DOING NOTHING - political gridlock is the best friend the economy ever had. The Democrat Socialist Party created a job for you writing mindless hand-wringing drivel that panders to the Democrat Socialist Party base ruling class clustered around Bethesda.

Posted by: ddaly7 | January 20, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

This isn't accurate. The article doesn't say he was demanding something "exciting, effective, and politically viable." The article author just assumes that's what he needs. But the reality is that over the past two years, with congress in hand, effective and politically viable were what mattered. Now, without Congress, the goal should be "exciting and effective", the type of ideas he can take to the American people.

You say you want Obama to propose something "bold" at the State of the Union, but you criticize him for asking his team for "exciting" ideas in preparation for the SotU?

Willows here in comments and others have criticized Obama for not doing more to use the executive branch to find ways to create jobs. But the article has people complaining that he was demanding that they find ways to use the executive branch powers to create jobs.

Posted by: eggnogfool | January 20, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

There are solutions on the cheap. Repeal tariffs on imported goods and remove all subsidies.

Posted by: BradG | January 20, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

@ddaly7:
The government does create jobs. By removing 'uncertainty' from the market so that small business can compete fairly with monopolistic big businesses.
.
Likewise, infrastructure spending by the gov't creates LOTS of jobs and LOTS of other benefits to society. Private companies didn't build the interstate system or the internet. It was the Gov't in both cases who developed, planned and paid for them. Just because a private company did the actual 'work' doesn't mean the gov't wasn't fundamental to those enterprises.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 20, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

@BradG:

"There are solutions on the cheap. Repeal tariffs on imported goods and remove all subsidies."

I'm pretty sure the nominal goal was to increase domestic employment, not to decrease domestic employment while boosting foreign employment.

Posted by: eggnogfool | January 20, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

ddaly7 wrote:

"News flash for Mr. Klein - the government does NOT create jobs!"

Actually that's true as far as the private sector goes, but completely false otherwise. Government jobs are usually well-paid and less subject to the movements of the marketplace, so in that sense they are very good for the individuals that hold them, but of course inimical to taxpayers.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 20, 2011 1:29 PM | Report abuse

UM @ 20% and climbing every day as people enter the workforce with no jobs created for them to go to.

Obie, another Dem one term president.

Posted by: illogicbuster | January 20, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

This piece is bang on target. President Obama doesn't seem to know he's a leader. He seems to think of himself as chief arbiter.

Posted by: TomCantlon | January 20, 2011 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Seems to me it's fair for Obama to look for, even prioritize, policies that are effective AND politically viable. The weakness is if there are few if any that fit both criteria AND he then gives up there. If his newfound political capital is only used to cut deals that the Beltway Villagers go gaga over, again he will have squandered his potential, and the support of his voters.

Posted by: brucek1 | January 20, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, can you square your traditional analysis that "individuals don't matter so much" in politics with what you're saying today?: "If the president wants to go bold on job creation, he needs to go bold on job creation. The votes may not be there now, but perhaps it's worth mounting a very public effort to get them there. At the State of the Union, say. And if Republicans block the proposals, well, sometimes the best way to show the public where you stand on something is to go down fighting for it."

Your posts in the past --- most notably on health care --- have emphasized that Obama himself shouldn't be a focal point of why a given piece of legislation tanks (i.e. the public option or stimulus or what have you). And, unless I've misread you previously, you often responded to Obama detractors on the left by saying there wasn't much Obama could do.

I'm not saying you're being contradictory. I agree with you that when you have a dysfunctional Senate and other systemic, institutional problems, there really isn't that much a single President can do.

But, I think your analysis that he should "go bold" if he wants to go bold captures my feeling which is that the POTUS has one of the biggest soap boxes in the land. If the President can't make the case to the American people that we need to act on something there aren't many who can. And, yes, I think taking these types of stands is helpful if only to articulate the value divide.

I think what Baker's article demonstrates is that the President didn't go bold because he didn't really want to "go bold." He cared more about "political viability" than boldness/effectiveness. To be sure, Obama isn't stupid or apathetic, but I think it's telling that "political viability" always seems to win out with him. Given the enormity of our country's problems, "political viability" *should not* always be the goal post even if it's reality in Washington.

Posted by: pbasso_khan | January 20, 2011 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree to the extent that this is about President Obama understanding that sometimes you stake out an issue and fight for it knowing that it won't pass. I've been completely supportive of the President's focus on getting things passed during his first two years. There were lots of big problems to be addressed and big Democratic majorities that made it more possible to do address those problems than any time in a generation. The right thing to do in that situation is pass whatever you can get 60 votes on, and that's what they did.

Now that you've got a Republican House, however, the White House should look for smaller-bore issues where the Republicans and Dems can reach some kind of compromise (maybe some tweaks to NCLB or something along those lines), and then choose a couple issues to loudly fight for even though you know it has no chance of passing the house.

Posted by: MosBen | January 20, 2011 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The words "Obama" and "bold" don't belong in the same sentence.

Unless you consider "bold" to be always caving into the repugs and enabling the criminal banks because so far those have been his only ideas.

Posted by: solsticebelle | January 20, 2011 3:13 PM | Report abuse

When Obama tries to negotiate with congress to get everything he can out of them, he's "forgetting that he should be leading", "not realizing that the right questions are whether the policy is good and can win over the American people", and "avoiding doing the difficult things".

When he wants exciting, bold ideas to take to the American people in the State of the Union address, he's being "vapid" and "overconsumed by polls".

When he asks staffers what can be done using executive powers without needing congressional approval, he's "Trying to get by on the cheap" and "thinking and acting timidly".

Clearly he needs to stop looking at Congress, the American people, and the Executive Branch and start working to create jobs.

Posted by: eggnogfool | January 20, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

obama has been handed job after job, he doesn't know what it's like to have a job in the real world...
you can't create jobs if you can't think out of the box...
no jobs...
no reelection...

Posted by: DwightCollins | January 20, 2011 5:59 PM | Report abuse

of all the czars, he doesn't have a jobs czar...

Posted by: DwightCollins | January 20, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Re "'. . . the government does NOT create jobs!' Actually that's true as far as the private sector goes . . ." uh no. Must have been written by someone unfamiliar with government contracting. Tax dollars create MILLIONS of private sector jobs, every day, in small and large businesses. Who produces the weapons? Who serves meals in cafeterias and takes out the trash? Contractors also work side-by-side with civil servants on many things. The list is truly endless.

Posted by: pjro | January 20, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Dear President Obama,

I can offer you a way "to juice the economy that are exciting, effective and politically viable."

It is nearly the tenth anniversary of 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

We have the technology today (fully vetted by no less than the official Federal Investigation into the World Trade Center Disaster) to prevent people from having to jump or die in high-rise building fires.

So much so that this technological breakthrough (called AESOP) is actually a part of the official Final Recommendations of the WTC Disaster Investigation.

Indeed, to create jobs, why not be bold and say that this essential technology will be built in the USA, not only for every Federal building domestically, but also for every building in every city in the world, eventually.

This is an exciting, effective and politically viable solution Mr. President. You have nothing to lose if you try.

Have your aides reseach this matter. It is all of public record.

Sincerely,

Rex Solomon

Posted by: rexsolomon | January 20, 2011 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Hey Ezra, what do you think about Obama back-stabbing the Teamsters union by letting Mexican trucks into the U.S.? They were one of his big supporters in the election, right? Lets see, Austin Goolsbee, who was recently hired (again) by Obama, was actually fired in the run-up to the election when he went to Canada and told the Canadians that Obama was only kidding when he said he would support American truckers keeping foreign (Mexican and Canadian) trucking companies out of the U.S. Goolsbee was right and now they are doing exactly that. In February. So uh, THAT oughta help with jobs, right? Sure! If your goal is to LOSE more jobs. Course, that isn't the point of what he is doing here. The real goal is to create a North American Union (NAU). I know, I know, crazy conspiracy. Except its happening. At least try to google the issue and keep up to date with what is actually happening, and not burying your head in the sand and pretending everything is fine. Obama is a tool, just like George Bush was (is) for the incipient corporatist fascism that is closing down upon us. Google: Mexican Truckers News

Posted by: shred11 | January 20, 2011 8:01 PM | Report abuse

To PJRO: Re "'. . . the government does NOT create jobs!' Actually that's true as far as the private sector goes . . ." uh no. Must have been written by someone unfamiliar with government contracting. Tax dollars create MILLIONS of private sector jobs, every day, in small and large businesses. Who produces the weapons? Who serves meals in cafeterias and takes out the trash? Contractors also work side-by-side with civil servants on many things. The list is truly endless.....
-------------------------------------------
Actually, pjro, I'm profoundly familiar with government contracting. Point of fact, every agency has a cadre of bean counters assigned to uncovering contractor collusion and price fixing. Since most bean counters don't really take their job seriously, we wind up with $5K hammers for the GSA and $10K toilet seats on DOD jets. Bottom line: 1) when you spend your own money on yourself, you scrutinize the relative merits of cost and quality of products or dervices; 2) when you spend your own money on other people, the cost assumes primary importance; 3) if you have the opportunity to spend other people's money on yourself, cost goes out the window and quality consideration is tantamount; 4) when the government assigns bireaucrats to spend other people's money, nobody gives two squats about anything.
Ergo, government created jobs, products, and/or services will not stand the economic litmus test, since no bureaucrat has a personal vested interest in their ultimate determinations.

Posted by: ddaly7 | January 20, 2011 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I have heard the idea floated of allowing full retirement and Medicare at age 62 for a few years , this apparently would immediatley create 15 million new jobs , makes sense to me . Surely this would not cost us a fortune .... let the older people spend time with their grandkids and let the younger people into the workforce .

Posted by: sligowoman | January 20, 2011 8:56 PM | Report abuse

There are lots of ways that President Obama could accelerate the economic recovery and create more jobs without having to contend with an arthritic Congress. Here's one idea:

The Economic Policy Institute has a smart, well-researched public service jobs plan to create a million living wage jobs. These could include: cleaning up of abandoned and vacant properties to alleviate blight in distressed and foreclosure-affected neighborhoods; staffing emergency food programs to reduce hunger and promote family stability; working in Head Start, child care, and other early childhood education programs to promote school readiness and early literacy; or renovating and maintaining parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces.

The creation of a million jobs for three years would put a serious dent into our unemployment problem as well as provide much-needed public services. Congress, we are told, has no interest in appropriating the $40 billion a year needed for this program. So how do we create this kind of public service jobs program?

President Obama has the authority, the ability, and (forgive me) the audacity to ask the largest banks in the nation to fund the public service jobs program through direct grants of $40 billion a year to a consortium of large, capable, national not-for-profit organizations. NGOs with national reach like the YMCA, Habitat for Humanity, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and dozens of others are more than capable of employing large numbers of people in just these sorts of jobs.

What do the banks get out of it? They get a big whopping tax deduction, they get some badly needed good will, and they get a leg up in the coming public opinion debate about how the new financial regulations should be implemented. But suppose they don’t go along? Suppose they turn us down flat? Then the President has an opportunity to make the banks’ obligation a public issue. The financial crisis spawned by Wall Street pushed our economy into the worst recession in 80 years. The bailouts were wildly unpopular and they are still a sore point with most voters. The fact that the banks have nearly paid back the TARP money does not mean that this episode is over because the economy is still suffering. The financial institutions are obligated to make the country whole. President Obama has the authority and the skills to make this a public issue. This is the kind of fight the President should want and it’s a fight that the electorate is ready for.

Posted by: jerrypolner | January 20, 2011 10:41 PM | Report abuse

What the President really means when he says "exciting" is "creative". He will not get that from the establishment hacks that surround him. The creative people cannot get to talk to the President - and so the great opportunity that is the State of the Union will probably be wasted.


Avraam Jack Dectis

Posted by: avraamjack | January 23, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse

What the President really means when he says "exciting" is "creative". He will not get that from the establishment hacks that surround him. The creative people cannot get to talk to the President - and so the great opportunity that is the State of the Union will probably be wasted.


Avraam Jack Dectis

Posted by: avraamjack | January 23, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse


It is also becoming questionable that we can lure industries to do business in the USA. The gang stalking movement has turned the USA into a fascistic place where anyone deemed unamerican is openly stalked , harassed poisoned and irradiated. ( Do a web search on gang stalking in the unlikely even that this is news. ) Economies do not exist independently of their societies.

Posted by: avraamjack | January 23, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company