Daily Archives: January 28, 2010

On Obama’s speech, I’m puzzled by Andrew Sullivan’s response to my asking, in my previous post, “What does it matter who caused the problem [of the budget deficit]? Obama’s job is to solve it.” Andrew replies:

Let me try to explain: it matters who caused the problem and why because if we do not understand the causes we cannot fix the problem and it matters because any adult judgment of a politician’s first year that does not take into account the inheritance he was bequeathed is impossible.

Fair enough, I suppose. In appraising Obama’s first year, one should certainly take note of his poisoned inheritance. If I haven’t always done so, it might be because I think the point so obvious that repeating it gets tiresome. As for needing to understand the problem before we can fix it: of course. But the essentials of the problem are not that hard to understand: the government is spending too much and taxing too little. The question is, what do we do about that?

As he warms to his theme, though, Andrew loses me. He says that, like the GOP, I “remove the context” of the inheritance, thus rigging the debate so Obama cannot win. This kind of punditry is “far more of a problem for the country than anything Obama has done – because it bases political judgment on unreality, and distorts the body politic’s capacity for reasoned argument.” Good God. I had not realised I was doing something so complicated.

It is quite an accusation. In asking for the debate to focus on solutions – which taxes do we raise, which programs do we squeeze – I am eroding the nation’s brainpower, and deliberately, mind you, because like so many others I am “invested in continuing the game”. I suppose it is better to be accused of bad faith than stupidity, but my own brainpower must indeed be seriously diminished, because this complaint strikes me as so much portentous nonsense. That cannot be right, can it?

We are standing in a burning building. “Andrew, help me with this extinguisher.” “One moment, Clive. Let us first examine the causes of the conflagration. We cannot douse these terrible flames until we have laid bare the history, and faced it unflinchingly. I see what you are doing. You and others I could name refuse that necessary course, and are thus depleting the nation’s capacity for rational thought. A few of us have chosen not to play that game. We have invested our hopes and dreams in rising above all that. In the name of the body politic, in the name of reasoned argument, in the name of all that is decent, can we not renounce the [cut short by falling debris...]”

On the other hand, we agree (mostly) about the iPad.

Little sign of a reset that I could see. The speech emphasized jobs and the economy over healthcare reform, but that would have made sense even if the political landscape had not shifted. As for the poll numbers, as for Massachusetts, they might never have happened. He mentioned Scott Brown’s victory only obliquely, and in way that denied it any significance.

I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.

He conveyed almost no sense that the country was sending him a message and that he was paying attention. He shuffled priorities-but goals and methods had not changed. The tone was uncompromising and often combative. “We don’t quit. I don’t quit.” If you admire tenacity, there was a lot to like.

He followed James Carville’s bad advice in Monday’s FT, dwelling at length on his poisoned inheritance. (On CNN, Carville said the speech was wonderful.)

Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we will still face the massive deficit we had when I took office.

True, that massive deficit is largely due to the Bush tax cuts-only part of which, however, Obama intends to reverse. The tax cuts Obama intends to retain belong to him, and so does the corresponding part of the deficit. But the point is: who cares? Carville is wrong. What does it matter who caused the problem? Obama’s job is to solve it.

He called for a bipartisan fiscal commission to look into the matter. He said this must not be a way to kick the issue down the road. That is what it would be, of course. He offered little in the way of recommendations on long-term spending cuts or tax increases-no mention of fundamental tax reform. The proposed temporary freeze on discretionary spending (less than a fifth of the budget) is trivial, little more than a gesture. Achieving fiscal sustainability requires presidential leadership, a national debate on taxes and spending, and bipartisan action. Americans have grown accustomed to demanding more in public services than they are willing to pay for, and the gap is now enormous. Obama let all this slide.

In a way, he let health reform slide too-not just by pushing it way down the running order, but by conspicuously failing to propose, much less champion, any way out of the current impasse. We have to get this done, he said, but he did not say what or how. Even now, his position seems to be: “Just give me something to sign.” As for making the case to a public that remains, at best, unconvinced, all he had was the usual stories about the injustices of the present system. They are good stories, but they are too familiar. They have not worked, and they aren’t going to now.

It was a highly partisan speech, despite the occasional obligatory reference to the need to work together. Nancy Pelosi was loving it throughout, except for the partial spending freeze.

He criticized Democrats not for over-reaching, but for being wimps.

I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.

He criticized the other side for being purblind obstructionists.

[I]f the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.

Fair points, you might say. Still, the whole thing came over more as an attempt to restore the Democrats’ energy and morale, while cracking a few jokes at the Republicans’ expense, than as a plea for moderation, compromise and co-operation. I’ll be surprised if independent voters were impressed.

The weirdest paragraph was this:

Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going – what keeps me fighting – is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism – that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people – lives on.

One could spend a while untangling that. Are we supposed to empathize with Obama for the setbacks he has suffered at the hands of voters-and admire his resilience in the face of these misfortunes? It is as though losing political support and an election or three is not a judgment on the administration’s performance: it is an accident, an injustice even, akin to somebody losing his job. But Obama will carry on, just as America’s people will carry on, because he is righteously determined to ignore the voters’ opinion.

When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so good.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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