Sunday, August 07, 2011

My thoughts on the debt ceiling debacle

It's now been several days since Obama completely caved to Republican debt ceiling pressure, on an issue that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described as "a hostage that’s worth ransoming".

And while stocks have dropped and people are now talking about a double dip recession, we still don't know how bad it's going to get. As I'm writing this, US markets have not yet reacted to late Friday's news that S&P downgraded US debt. (Monday should be interesting, judging from the concerns of these important people.)

Predictably, liberals are piling on with criticism of Obama. Nobody likes it when their leader completely capitulates. One of my Facebook friends has started sending links to pro-Hillary articles again (she took a break when Hillary lost the 2008 primary).

So I found myself wondering: Would we have been better off with a hard-core liberal like Hillary, who presumably would have done a better job playing political hardball against take-no-prisoners Tea Party Republicans? After all, it's hard to argue that Obama's middle-of-the-road approach to negotiations is not pushing the country harder to the right.

On the other hand, there are those who say Obama may lose a battle here and there, but he's really a master chess player who will beat everyone in the end. He may not throw liberals a lot of red meat by taking and holding on to tough positions, but he wins on policy grounds by striking compromises and getting stuff done. Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the most articulate proponent of this view:
On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.
I'm mostly in Sullivan's camp. But I think is the best feature of the Obama presidency is this: We have a president who respects the opinions of Congressional voters.

After all, if the population of the United States keeps voting for Tea Party activists and other far-right leaning Republicans, then policy (especially on spending and taxation) should take their views into account. That's what democracy is all about.

Fundamentally, I don't think the country is well served by having master tacticians (of either party) as presidents, even if it might serve my own personal agenda (fiscally moderate, socially liberal) in the short run.

Put in different terms: If you think the Tea Party is a destructive force, then it may be best to let them destroy some stuff so that people stop voting them into office. This argument is frequently made in Europe about right-wing extremist parties (such as the Progressive Party in Norway that Anders Breivik was briefly member of), and I think it's an important one. (Especially when you want to take oxygen away from extremists such as Breivik.)

Of course, there is no guarantee that actual destruction will prevent people from voting destruction-minded politicians into office. Especially since the media's cult of balance is likely to distort the picture. However, I believe "the truth" gets out eventually if the political system functions reasonably well.

And that, I suspect, is Obama's biggest concern: The health of the democratic process and our political system. And on that, he deserves our support. The alternative is the end of American leadership and pre-eminence in the world.

UPDATE: Having said all that, I do hope that Obama will read this Drew Westen piece: What Happened to Obama?.

Though unlike Westen I am more worried about the quality of the political system itself and less worried about the absence of superman-style personalities like the version of Obama he wants. If we want to make a better country then we should improve the press, elect better people to Congress, and contribute to better general discourse.

UPDATE II: More good comments about Obama and the Westen piece from Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan. This, from a Sullivan reader (second link) has certainly been a wake-up call for me:
What you (and I) thought was a phenomenon mostly inherent/related to the Clintons and Bushes is structural; it has far more to do with the closed informational loop on the Right and the Aileses and Kristols and Norquists and Limbaughs guarding the door... guys who sure as hell weren't going to let Obama in, no matter how even-keeled his temperament or how many nice things he said about Reagan.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Economist: "Obama stimulus did not create jobs" and "In retrospect, stimulus was too small"

"Lexington", August 6th to 12th 2011 issue:
Mr Obama’s fate depends more on two big bets he placed well before the Republican capture of the House in November’s mid-terms. The health-care reform that chewed up political capital in his first two years tanked with voters, and more than $800 billion of stimulus spending has so far failed to deliver the hoped-for growth in jobs. The outcome of the next election will depend more on unemployment than on Mr Obama’s handling of the past month’s comic opera on the debt ceiling.
Regarding the stimulus, perhaps the author should have read "Six years into a lost decade" on the previous page:
Had the new Obama administration seen that the economy was shrinking at close to 9% per year, it might well have pushed for a much larger stimulus plan, and might reasonably have expected Congress to agree to it.
Perhaps the stimulus averted an even greater disaster, even though the "hoped-for growth in jobs" did not materialize. After all, you either believe in stimulus spending during recessions or you don't.

Also, I would love to hear more about how a Congress that just imposed severe austerity on a fragile economy might have been "reasonably expected" to agree to a bigger stimulus.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why you should travel when young

Deep stuff:
The moment you meet people of other faiths whom you consider to be at least as decent, at least as religious, and at least as intelligent as you think you are, you will never be the same.