Christina Romer: Obama Is No Roosevelt
Economist Christina Romer defends the stimulus she helped devise and delivers a few laughs in the process. Among the lessons learned from the stimulus experience she notes the importance of salesmanship and public confidence
I've argued before that the Obama administration made a cynical decision not to follow the FDR model and that they are now paying the price for that miscalculation.
So it turns out that the Obama brain trust was more realistic than Republicans and many conservatives. They understood that Michael Barone was correct: the US remains a center-right nation. While many Republican “strategists” thought the public had rejected all things conservative, the new administration recognized that their agenda lacked popular support.
Hence, their cynical desire to “not let a crisis go to waste.” The administration hoped that they could lock in their programs while the public was stunned by the financial meltdown and the Obama honeymoon.
There is some truth in this assessment. I would also argue that the administration stumbled because it was too cynical, too insular, too high-handed, and too partisan.
If ever there was a president with the opportunity to become a second FDR, it was Barack Obama in January, 2009.
Yet the administration rejected Roosevelt’s focus of his first 100 days: relief, recovery, reform. Nor did it follow his example and rally broad national support for his programs. Instead, the tone and direction were set by the hyper-partisan Rahm Emmanuel: “never let a crisis go to waste.”
The administration was almost eager to move the economic crisis to the back burner while they and the liberal Congress pushed forward with long-standing items on their wish list (cap and trade, health care reform, immigration reform, etc.). Inside Washington, it might seem smart to see a crisis as an opportunity to pass progressive legislation. To the people who are bearing the brunt of the recession, it seems like an abdication of leadership or a heartless betrayal of trust.
No surprise, then, that the stubborn economic weakness has been a drag on Obama’s approval numbers. It is not just that the public is impatient; many voters rightly sense that the White House felt little urgency to fix what was obviously broken.
In the Hundred Days Congress did little more than rubber stamp the legislation that flew from the White House to Capitol Hill. That might not be the best way to govern, but it left no doubt that Roosevelt was the Man with a Plan (actually many plans). FDR also used the new medium of radio to connect with voters via his fireside chats. He was at the center of the public debate-- at once the towering authority figure in the White House and the reassuring voice in everyone's living room.
Obama often seemed to disappear off-stage during the major battles of 2009. He deferred to congress and let them craft most of the major legislation. He allowed Reid and Pelosi to move at a glacial pace on important issues like financial reform. The White House was unable or unwilling to find a modern equivalent of the fireside chat that would let Obama sustain public support for his programs.
Maybe, just maybe, the voters did not sour on Obama because he confronted problems that were beyond the powers of government. Perhaps, remembering Roosevelt, they fault him for not trying hard enough to solve the problems they care about most. If i am right, then progressives owe the president an apology. It is not that he did too little for them, it is that he tried to do too much.
Unfortunately, the Administration chose to operate as a arm of the most partisan members of Congress instead of fashioning a program and platform of its own. On the really crucial issues, the president ratified the proposals of Pelosi, Dodd, Frank, et. al., rather than crafting his own, more centrist program