For crying out loud

I’m the process of moving house, and admit that I got to Friday morning’s Krugman column 24 hours after every other blogger. But I couldn’t let this go.

Quoth Krugman:

For more than a year and a half — ever since President Obama chose to make deficits, not jobs, the central focus of the 2010 State of the Union address — we’ve had a public conversation that has been dominated by budget concerns, while almost ignoring unemployment.

Krugman should turn off the rage long enough to read the damn speech. Except for the parts that defended the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, practically the whole thing was about job creation, and to some extent about the difficulty of getting things done in today’s hyper-partisan Washington—a problem that Krugman one of these years might do well to consider taking seriously.

To the extent that we’ve forgotten Obama’s jobs agenda, it’s because Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate killed all most of the jobs programs that Obama proposed over and over again (most of which the House passed). True, the amount of the President’s speech devoted to the deficit was non-zero, whereas Krugman would have preferred zero. But the claim that the deficit was the speech’s “main focus” is pure fantasy.

Don’t believe me? I pulled from Lexis-Nexis some headlines from the next day. The New York Times: “Health Care Gives Way To Economy And Jobs” and “A Populist Promise To Press On With Goals.” The Hill: “Obama: ‘Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010.”  Even the Washington Times, which of course didn’t like the speech: “Obama vows to fight for his agenda; President calls for spending freezes, jobs programs.”

If pundits want to claim that the speech caused “the public conversation” to be about deficits, they should look at a mirror, not at the podium. Maybe they decided in the days and weeks following the speech that the spending freeze gimmick was the only “news” the speech contained. But their preference for paying attention to gimmicks and sound bites, not proposed legislation and its fate, is their fault, not Obama’s.

Yes, this was just one speech. Yes, Obama has done too much after that speech to give aid and comfort to the deficit buzzards—though as Obama’s critics tend to gloss over, most of his rhetorical transgressions happened after Democrats lost the House and the chance of serious stimulus was about zero. In the near future I’ll have more to say about how the President’s critics can usefully challenge their partly legitimate anger. (Hint: “Don’t like Obama? Re-elect Pelosi.”)

But facts are stubborn things. And those who decry the shallowness of public debate have a special duty to be what Mark Danner calls “empiricists of the word.” Krugman is being something else.

And if one can define a fanatic as someone who’d rather have enemies than friends, Krugman is fast becoming a caricature of that type.

Comments

  1. says

    Andrew, where did Obama say anything like what he said in that speech again? And where was his sense of the bully pulpit, the way Ronald Wilson Reagan (Mr. 666) did with income tax cuts? Obama has been far more AWOL than anything else, and his true feelings have long been to undermine Social Security and Medicare as part of his grand bargain. Attacking Krugman for misunderstanding the 2010 SOTU speech does not get us to the position that somehow Obama was stymied by conservative Dems and Reeps. Obama passively watched things fall and was in fact rooting the failure, having imbibed long ago the Chicago Boys’ theory of markets.

  2. chrismealy says

    Ok, sure, Obama talked about jobs, but what we got was Simpson-Bowles and his genuine enthusiasm for the manufactured debt ceiling crisis.

  3. Marc says

    Krugman called out a specific example from a specific speech, and his example was wrong. That matters. If you’re determined to be disappointed, of course, then you can always find some other way that he has failed you. But that then doesn’t address the substantive point – which is that Paul has wrapped everything that Obama does into a story of betrayal, to the point where he has remembered up as down.

  4. Vance Maverick says

    You’re right that jobs are at least as prominent than the deficit in the speech. But Krugman is not literally wrong.
    There’s a big swatch of that speech about the deficit (below), in conventional terms.

    It’s worth correcting Krugman, but not demonizing him.

    But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year.

    Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)

    We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work. We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. To help working families, we’ll extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, for investment fund managers, and for those making over $250,000 a year. We just can’t afford it. (Applause.)

    Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we’ll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office. More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will continue to skyrocket. That’s why I’ve called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. (Applause.) This can’t be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.

    Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I’ll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. (Applause.) And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s. (Applause.)

    Now, I know that some in my own party will argue that we can’t address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting. And I agree — which is why this freeze won’t take effect until next year — (laughter) — when the economy is stronger. That’s how budgeting works. (Laughter and applause.) But understand –- understand if we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery -– all of which would have an even worse effect on our job growth and family incomes.

    From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument -– that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that’s what we did for eight years. (Applause.) That’s what helped us into this crisis. It’s what helped lead to these deficits. We can’t do it again.

    Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time to try something new. Let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let’s meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let’s try common sense. (Laughter.) A novel concept.

  5. R, Johnston says

    Prioritizing deficit cuts means none of the talk about jobs matters; it’s literally impossible to reconcile smaller deficits in the short term with the government doing anything about jobs. Obama already cut his budget deal, and anything he says about wanting to improve the job market is cut rate propaganda designed to appeal only to fools.

    Krugman is 100% correct. It is economically illiterate to claim that a man who has made budget deficits his number one priority can also do something about jobs. He can vacuously lie about wanting to do something about jobs, but it’s a vacuous lie, not an actual policy goal.

  6. Andrew Sabl says

    R, Johnston: you are begging the question. I deny that cutting the deficit *was* his number one priority. Neither you nor Krugman can even consider the possibility that Obama was sincere in wanting to spend money in the short term to create jobs, and in postponing deficit reduction until the economy was better. But that’s exactly what he was proposing in this speech.

  7. Bob Dobbs says

    Krugman is right on this one. Summing up the word count of the jobs portion of the speech and comparing it to the deficit bits is not a useful heuristic to determine the focus of the speech. The discretionary spending freeze swamped all of Obama’s small beer, poll-tested jobs initiatives that were included in the SOTU. It made clear that Obama had no intention of revisiting the problem of an undersized stimulus.

  8. Rob says

    If Obama was sincere it would have meant passing stimulus as part of budget reconciliation where you only need 50 senators. That didn’t happen. The deficit commission did happen.

  9. Barry says

    Vance came out with the smoking gun here – Andrew, that chunk he quoted could be summed up as ‘I’m going to destroy jobs in vast numbers’.

  10. politicalfootball says

    I suppose Krugman was exaggerating when he said Obama made deficits “the central focus” of that speech. But really, is that all you’ve got? Under the circumstances, it was very wrong for Obama to say this, and worse that he subsequently acted as though it were true:

    Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)

    Krugman understood in real-time how ominous these words were, and what they seemed to portend for Obama’s future policy choices. This speech truly marked the end of the federal government’s efforts to deal with jobs as an issue, and marked the beginning of Obama’s misguided efforts to bring down the deficit.

    As you acknoweldge, Andrew:

    Yes, Obama has done too much after that speech to give aid and comfort to the deficit buzzards—though as Obama’s critics tend to gloss over, most of his rhetorical transgressions happened after Democrats lost the House and the chance of serious stimulus was about zero.

    To be clear, this is exactly what we’re griping about. When the Republicans lost the Congress and the Presidency, they didn’t give up. When the odds of running the country back into the ditch seemed daunting, they kept trying to grab the steering wheel, and now they seem to have it firmly in hand, even with control of only one house of Congress.

    And Obama didn’t just stop fighting when fighting seemed futile, he actively joined the other side. This lousy deficit deal took the shape it did because Obama actively shaped it, not because he was the passive victim of the Republicans.

  11. Keith Humphreys says

    Andy wrote: And if one can define a fanatic as someone who’d rather have enemies than friends, Krugman is fast becoming a caricature of that type.

    Krugman may have become a victim of his own amen corner. Some people are completely uncritical of whatever he says, and are outraged if anyone disagrees with him…maybe that’s the only people to whom he wishes to speak anymore….and over time, as with Fox News, such dittoheads will be the only people who pay him any attention.

  12. Graeagle says

    Santayana defined fanaticism as redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

  13. anon says

    Exactly, and Obama has redoubled his effort to get reelected forgetting that he promised to help people.

  14. Tony P. says

    Krugman may have become a victim of his own amen corner.

    Could Keith be confusing Krugman with Obama? Just asking.

    Andrew’s knock on Krugman is that Krugman does not appreciate the greatness of Obama. That Krugman does not say “amen” when Obama says “compromise”. It is not, as far as I can tell, that Krugman misunderstands economics, but that Krugman misunderstands Obama. That seems silly to me. Obama is hard to understand, compared to economics.

    –TP

  15. bill says

    Brad DeLong’s response to you over this is right. He really didn’t use the pulpit well for jobs and his policy was contraction, deficit oriented.

  16. Kenneth Almquist says

    R, Johnston: “it’s literally impossible to reconcile smaller deficits in the short term with the government doing anything about jobs.”

    Now that’s an overstatement. In rough numbers, saving the American automobile industry cost $5 billion and reduced the unemployment rate by 0.6%. Spending programs of that order of magnitude are consistent with attacking deficits.

    What Obama proposed in his 2010 State of the Union address was a bunch of short term fixes which he acknowledged were too small to return the economy to full employment, and a bunch of programs to improve the economy over the long term. Krugman was wrong when he wrote that Obama, “chose to make deficits, not jobs, the central focus of the 2010 State of the Union address.” At the same time, I think that Krugman is closer to the truth than Sabi acknowledges. If Obama had set a goal of fixing the unemployment problem, rather than ameliorating it slightly, I think that the public conversation would be rather different. As Vance Maverick says above, “It’s worth correcting Krugman, but not demonizing him.”

  17. Mark says

    It’s quite funny that extoll Krugman to “read the damn speech,” then attempt to prove that jobs were his number one priority by quoting headlines from newspapers. As the speech indicates, Obama had a lot more specific ways he was going to cut spending than ways to create jobs. I mean, really, read the damn speech.

  18. CDW says

    Talk is cheap and doesn’t add to the deficit. When it comes to actual policy, he calls for creating jobs in Colombia, Korea, and Panama and job training for the Americans who lose their jobs to those countries.

  19. David says

    The concrete policies to create jobs were not there. More importantly, the support for Simpson-Bowles, which is essentially contractionary and would destroy jobs, was misplaced. Krugman was right. You’re wrong.

  20. oli3 says

    “The concrete policies to create jobs were not there.” I’m with David.

    “As the speech indicates, Obama had a lot more specific ways he was going to cut spending than ways to create jobs.” I’m with Mark.

    Imagine if every time the republicans brought up the deficit, the President had said, “That’s fine, but let’s work on this jobs problem first, that’s where the biggest problem is.” And then said it again. And again. And again.

    And again.

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