I think Obama knows what he’s doing.

The Chicken Little impressions now being done by the liberal commentariat – typified by JZ’s “Is Obama a Repubican or a moron?” post – reminds me of early September, 2008, when the post-Palin boom briefly carried McCain into the lead in the polls and everyone and his uncle suddenly became an expert on what the Obama campaign was doing wrong and needed to do differently RIGHT THIS MINUTE!

That in turn reminded me of this:

I’d still like to hear the President point out that the best way to cure the deficit is to grow the economy, and that we need current stimulus as much as we need long-term fiscal responsibility, but watching McConnell and Boehner and Cantor twist themselves into a pretzel and the entire Republican debt-ceiling strategy descending into … let’s just say, Central Asian polyamory … I get the sense that the poker-player-in-chief still knows when to hold ’em.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

41 thoughts on “Chill!”

  1. He has had more than two years to convey to the public the concepts of middle class purchasing power and the importance of aggregate demand in the economy. FDR would have explained it all within the first weeks of taking office, and in terms whereby people would have said, “That makes sense!” The Tea Party gained traction because there was no coherent Democratic conceptual framework that it had to overcome.

    I certainly hope that he has got it under control, but he can’t even bring himself to say, “When Ronald Reagan was President, he raised taxes when the need arose. In those days, Republicans pledged allegiance to the flag. Today, they pledge allegiance to Grover Norquist.” He can risk being confrontational and would gain public support, but it seems that he still is afraid of being labeled an Angry Black Man if he does.

  2. Barack Hussein Obama is better at politics than most of us are at anything. The idea that those of us sitting on our couches pecking away at our laptops have a better ideas of how to get crap done in Washington than our President is just laughable.

  3. Meh, it doesn’t matter, Team D players would vote for Obama even if he ate a baby on television because “the Republicans are WORSE!”

  4. Finn- The Republicans ARE worse. Brad is wrong in my opinion.

    That said, I am mystified why Mark and other Obama defenders did not take me up on my request to name ONE instance where Obama went to bat for a progressive or liberal value under circumstances where he could risk some “political capital.” He certainly has gone to bat for Republicans and their policies (remember a temporary tax cut under Bush?) when it would cost him capital with progressives and liberals. Even his HCR achievement is essentially a Republican bill, back when Republicans cared about the country but had different ideas about how to serve it.

    If you cannot name one such instance that is not trivial why object when we are less than thrilled with him?

    Beginning at least with Teddy Roosevelt, the Presidency has included being a “bully pulpit” to help set the tone of policy and the values of the administration. Obama’s wimp pulpit has been to grant the conservatives the frame they want and undercut progressives. He’s still better than a Republican, but I don’t think he is as good as a Republican maybe 40 years ago.

  5. “I’d still like to hear the President point out that the best way to cure the deficit is to grow the economy, and that we need current stimulus as much as we need long-term fiscal responsibility….”

    I’d like a chocolate pony. What evidence do you have that president share’s your view? Obama is acting as he is because he’s obtaining results acceptable to him and the people financing him (well, except for the guys at the top of this list who having been facing budget cut after budget cut lately).

    I ask you the same question I asked David Brooks during the darkest part of the Bush years: What flavor is the kool-aid, grape or cherry?

  6. I would have agreed with Mark and with Chuchundra as late as the early summer of 2009 when President Obama spoke to the AMA in Chicago, presenting his health care plan with something that looked like real political mastery. But he was quickly blindsided by the “death panel” meme, which could have been countered early on by saying, “Some people don’t want you to have the choice of discussing your end of life options with your doctor. Looks like they want the government to force you to stay alive, full of tubes and drugs, on machines and ventilators in an intensive care unit, just because you can be kept going for a few more days or weeks. Well, they’re wrong, and you shouldn’t pay attention to them.”

    If he had such a mastery of politics, then you have to explain how his party lost 60 seats in the midterm elections. The Tea Party took control of the House because of a political atmosphere in which a few half-witted slogans, repeated by the likes of Sarah Palin, were sufficient to prevail over the White House narrative, such as it was. The hypothesis of a consummate Obama political skill-set does not fit the data, and must be rejected on empirical grounds.

  7. What kind of curve on we grading on here? We’re cheering Obama because he didn’t sell out the New Deal, even though put it on the table? He also didn’t invade the Philippines. Does he get credit for that too?

  8. Mark can be bullish about the situation…
    But I’m still yogi bearish:

    “It ain’t over ’til it is over…”
    But it should be obvious what happened:

    The threat of Social Security not being mailed was the overt force…
    The threat from the quants, hedgers, and banksters was the covert force…

    These two forces were always at play. Obama never had a losing hand.
    The uncertain was, and still is, how deep and powerful and crazy are the freshman tea baggers…

    Which is all to say, since I began with Yogi…
    I’d better end with him too:

    “Prediction is very hard, especially of the future”.

  9. I must say the Repub spectacle of…central Asian polyamory…I think bears witness to Mark’s argument. Making sausage.

  10. PILE ON!!!

    Seriously, though, the reason that picture held such resonance for so many people back in 2008 is because we could point to a very recent example where he, in fact, had had “this”: the just-completed primary campaign.

    That’s no longer the case. 2008 feels like a long time ago. More to the point, Mark, progressives are asked to take it on faith that there’s some hidden strategic, “eleven-dimensional chess”-type genius behind his moves on the default crisis bargaining, including putting Social Security and Medicare on the table. For most progressives, myself included, this feels and smells dangerously like the 2009 public option fracas that characterised the debate on health care reform. All along, we were told that the public option had the President’s full support, and that we shouldn’t question the hidden strategic genius that was governing his moves on HCR…only to see the public option discarded at the end.

    And to this day, I suspect that he’s annoyed that progressives still haven’t gotten over the public option debate; this was most apparent during the budget negotiations last winter, when during one of his press conferences, President Obama let fly at progressives. Remember?

    “Somehow this notion that we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate we had during health care,” Obama said. “This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where I finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for 100 years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise. Now if that’s the standard against which we are measuring success or core principles, the let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about ourselves about how good our intentions are, how tough we are.

    So, no, Mark, people aren’t going to just “chill” and just assume that he’s “got it”. Nobody’s expecting the President to bring flowers and chocolate, but supporters like you need to understand that, contrary to 2008, there’s a deep wellspring of anger and mistrust there that has yet to be worked out.

  11. I agree with Mark about the poker-player-in-chief. The biggest challenge for Obama is forging a new coalition that can hold together the ideals of a democratic society. It is clear from the comments above, if you haven’t seen the evidence anywhere else, that success in this pursuit is not guaranteed. We’re lucky, those of us who don’t hold low taxes as the holy grail of politics, that Barack Obama is President. Few other people, if any, are in a position to understand how dramatically the world has changed AND happen to have the political skills to rely on something more useful than a rear view mirror to guide his decision making.

  12. I’m with Mark, with one caveat. Up till now, I think Obama’s eleventh dimensional chess strategies rest on the three-legged stool of counting on the GOP to act like overentitled spoiled brats, the Democrats and liberals to act like grown ups, and the media to see what is happening and report accurately. And up till now, only one of those has held. The question is whether Obama has adjusted his strategy accordingly. I guess we’ll see.

  13. I think this is different than the public option. In that case the dems never had the votes thanks to folks like Byah, Nelson, Leiberman etc. In this case I think he actually believes in the confidence fairy to help the economy as well as the idea that if the debt is diffused he can do the other things he wants (I think that is a too big a gamble since cutting so much now hurts the economy). Jon Cohn made the point earlier that Obama desire for a deal may be blinding him to what is in it – Medicare at 67 and I fear he is right. Kind of fortunately the Republicans are too tax averse to take the deal. I just hope we don’t crater the economy by default or cutting too deeply and my confidence that Obama understands the economic situation is deminished.

  14. IAG: I fully understand that this is different from the public option debate. Just trying to express that progressive angst here isn’t coming out of left field. And I think Jon Cohn is probably spot on.

  15. Only problem is that “growing the economy” is about as plausible as my leaping over the moon. Economic growth is done, finished, kaput. The past 250 years of it have been entirely the result of a once-in-planetary lifetime event, the fossil fuel blowout extravaganza now teetering past peak oil and to the end of peak coal even faster than many people realize.

    So you better come up with something more than ” growth” as the savior, or Barry’s done for.

  16. Ed, he did compare them negatively to Reagan:

    “I do trust that when John tells me something he means it,” Obama said. “I think that his challenge right now is inside his caucus. But I think — Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill are a great example. Ronald Reagan repeatedly took steps that included revenue, in order for him to accomplish some of these larger goals. And the question is, if Ronald Reagan could compromise, why wouldn’t folks who idolize Ronald Reagan be willing to engage in those same kinds of compromises?”

    Read more:

  17. I don’t have access to the President’s inner sanctum or private thoughts, and so far as I know neither does Mark. That means I have to judge him by his actions and public statements, and he has said and done a frightening number of dumb things lately. Yes, he is markedly better than any plausible Republican alternative, but that is an extremely low bar. The danger is that for many election cycles to come, the range of possible leadership ranges from Grover Norquist to the GOP-lite Obama that we know from his actual statements and actions in the last year or so, and will float somewhere in between. That is bad.

  18. Implicit in Gus diZ and others’ logic is that Obama started as a far left-winger and has either morphed over time, or betrayed his cause and is therefore a traitor.

    Gus is asking for just ONE example (his emphasis) where Obama has gone to bat for the left-wing or progressives. I don’t think he has, because I don’t think he’s left wing. But I don’t think he’s right wing either. He’s a moderate, staking his ground firmly in the middle. So your question is irrelevant, unless one is a progressive and DESPERATELY wants Obama to be one as well. Which leads to Gus’s assumption that Obama has failed–but only in the eyes of staunch left progressives or right-wing tea partiers.

    To those of a more moderate inclination, he’s done some great things, some good things, and maybe hasn’t been as forceful as he needs to be. But then he’s not Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman. He’s calmer and more deliberative. I don’t think he’s oracular or plays eleven-dimensional chess, but I do think he’s envisioning a longer term strategy than most people give him credit for.


    For the savants who think that the New Deal was a resounding success:

    “FDR’s policies prolonged Depression by 7 years, UCLA economists calculate
    By Meg Sullivan August 10, 2004
    Two UCLA economists say they have figured out why the Great Depression dragged on for almost 15 years, and they blame a suspect previously thought to be beyond reproach: President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
    After scrutinizing Roosevelt’s record for four years, Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian conclude in a new study that New Deal policies signed into law 71 years ago thwarted economic recovery for seven long years.
    “Why the Great Depression lasted so long has always been a great mystery, and because we never really knew the reason, we have always worried whether we would have another 10- to 15-year economic slump,” said Ohanian, vice chair of UCLA’s Department of Economics. “We found that a relapse isn’t likely unless lawmakers gum up a recovery with ill-conceived stimulus policies.”
    In an article in the August issue of the Journal of Political Economy, Ohanian and Cole blame specific anti-competition and pro-labor measures that Roosevelt promoted and signed into law June 16, 1933.
    “President Roosevelt believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services,” said Cole, also a UCLA professor of economics. “So he came up with a recovery package that would be unimaginable today, allowing businesses in every industry to collude without the threat of antitrust prosecution and workers to demand salaries about 25 percent above where they ought to have been, given market forces. The economy was poised for a beautiful recovery, but that recovery was stalled by these misguided policies.””

    I wonder if Ohanian and Cole think it is so unimaginable today

  20. I will give Obama credit for triangulating Boehner against the Tea Party, sowing discord and chaos in the Republican ranks. This strategy has ended up pitting Boehner against Eric Cantor (who has, weirdly, become the de facto Tea Party spokesman in recent talks, even though he’s Wall Street’s go-to Republican.) It should have interesting results.

  21. From PoliticusUSA, “As long as Obama holds his ground, the Republicans paralyzed by their own internal warfare will be left with two choices. They can either compromise which would both anger their base and help reelect this president, or they can hold their ground and watch their political fortunes go down the drain.

    Obama is playing head games with the GOP now. The best way for this president to overcome the Republicans do nothing agenda is to divide and conquer his ideologically fractured foes.”

  22. The political tactics are just fine. It’s the policy that’s the problem, and to a lesser extent the big-picture political strategy. Remember that if the Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled, there is no medium-term deficit problem. The President put forward a proposal that was vastly regressive compared to that baseline, and contractionary at the worst possible time. The simplest explanation is that the President believes the plan was good policy, and I cannot agree.

    Now, perhaps this was all some 80 dimensional chess move, and President Obama didn’t want it to pass and totally knew the Republicans wouldn’t go for it, and all that. That’s not very comforting. Brinkmanship with the credit of the United States is still bad, even if it’s our side leaning over the edge.

  23. I’m the one who seconded, above, the notion that the 2010 loss was worrisome.

    But I remain hopeful, and am sticking with the smart, kind, energetic Obama.

  24. Yes, FAB1, yes. Now eat your apple sauce or you lose your phone privileges.

  25. JMG: Do you have any alternatives other than growth to propose? Or is a forced contraction of demand and of the world economy inevitable at this stage of human history? Malthus anyone?

  26. FAB1: Quoting economists who wouldn’t know reality if it was a gun pointed to their head? Troll somewhere else.

    Unemployment was at over 30% when FDR started as president in 1933. If we count as employed those workers at the WPA, PWA, CCC and the like, who were doing real work that dealt with infrastructure and public buildings, roads, bridges, dams and forestry (unlike building a strip mall on spec), the unemployment rate in 1939 was hovering between 3% and 4%. The GNP, then the barometer of economic growth, grew throughout the decade following FDR’s ascension. His regulating of markets worked well for six decades until the Clintonites combined with Republicans to dismantle it, and then we had the bubble.

    For those who think there is nothing left to do but decline, let’s focus on re-developing our infrastructure and put in more tariffs to promote domestic industry. You know, like we did in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. And how China is doing things today. It’s practical to the point of causing me to wonder just where the “politics” is in terms of left, right, etc.

    Just don’t count on Barack Hoover Obama, though. I am with Jonathan Zasloff that Obama is a hopeless case. He buys into the nonsense of the UCLA economists and is simply managing our nation’s decline. The problem, of course, is the Republicans want to hasten that decline…:-(

  27. Curious, the fossil fuel party is what delayed Malthus’s reality. The good Rev. Failed to anticipate hydrocarbon fuels that would replace muscle power with machine power and permit the share of farmers to go to 2% of the populace from around 70%.

    But, absent a miracle, that’s done. If we had all the fossil fuels we would need to support any economic growth globally, we’d fry the planet even faster. “Luckily,” we don’t. Rather, we are entering a new regime where we have all the overshoot in population while our resource base degrades rapidly. Managing this contraction will be fantastically hard, and may not be done well. To the extent that we remain in denial about it and fantasize about growth instead, well, that’s just the heroin addict at work.

    See Richard Heinberg’s latest work “The End Of Growth” (New Society Publishers, 2011) for a book-length explication. Or this three-part post at Our Finite World blog by Gail Tverberg. Link to part one here:

  28. Also, off the top of my head:
    Jim Kunstler
    Herman Daly
    David Orr
    Bill McKibben
    David Kline (the Amish farmer)
    Wendell Berry
    Norman Wirzba
    Wes Jackson
    Ed Abbey (for laughs, as the entire Intermountain West returns to desert)

    And for the(?) original formulation of a steady-state economy, John Stuart Mill.

    Get busy! Start walking and living close to home.

  29. Matt-
    So for you ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ equal far left winger? I imagine FDR was a near red by the same logic.

    And you suggest that we are unreasonable for criticizing Obama for not doing what we’d like him to do? I guess for you people who disagree with the President should just STFU? Are you sure you are not a Republican?

    However I think you have explicitly admitted my point: Obama has done nothing much for liberal Democrats, even when it was easy, like appointing Dawn Johnson as a recess appointment – and so on what grounds should liberal Democrats refrain from criticizing him? You just said he is not our man. And aren’t you very two faced for not spending equal effort at shutting ip republicans?

  30. LOOOL How is it that Obama’s goose is always cooked, he’s always done exactly the wrong thing, he’s always a big sell-out… And yet…handed a country run into a ditch by the GOP, and facing a GOP that has made defeating him its #1 priority-even if the world economy must be destroyed as a means to that end–and facing a left wing of his party that rarely has a coherent thought…he has managed to right the ship, get it on a decent path, and outmaneuver his political opponents at almost every turn? Political opponents which, let me note, spend none of their processing power on policy matters, and 100% of it on political ones. The guy is pretty amazing, as any objective observer should be able to acknowledge. Oh, hell, it’s hard for me to believe that he can keep it up…he’s had to thread the needle too many times as it is. Handed a ship already on the sinky side, and with half his crew trying to scuttle it out of spite/for political gain, dude is still somehow managing to fight the good fight. They’ll probably all drag him down in the end…but *damn*, dude is *impressive*.

  31. Winston, I don’t think we would agree on the definition of “right the ship” or “fight the good fight.”

    He had to accept an undersized stimulus package, but he didn’t have to claim, wrongly, that it was big enough. He has to accept spending cuts to get a budget passed, but he doesn’t have to echo Republican talking points about the economy. And he absolutely didn’t have to continue the Bush policies on secrecy, indefinite detention without trial, secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping and all the rest. He has asserted, and won in the Supreme Court, the absolute right to kill anyone in the world, including an American citizen, on the grounds of national security, without any judicial oversight at all.

    I’ll grant that I’m amazed; I’m just not pleased.

  32. Don, you might add to your list that Obama allowed Bradley Manning to be tortured for about ten months, when questioned about it replied that the torturers (the military) had assured him that everything was proper, and stopped only after his former law professor Laurence Tribe and more than 250 other law professors told him that he was violating the Constitution: (I do not have evidence of cause and effect).

    Are you sure that the Supreme Court has addressed Obama’s assassination attempts? Citation?

  33. I have my doubts about the president, but I’m still with you. I believe in him. I’m not prepared to agree with those suggesting he’s caving in or betraying progressivism. He’s trying to make it work in an extremely hostile environment.

  34. “Barack Hussein Obama is better at politics than most of us are at anything.”

    Perhaps. But that’s not the point. The point is TO WHAT END IS HE USING HIS TALENTS?

  35. @Raf: we were told that the public option had the President’s full support, and that we shouldn’t question the hidden strategic genius that was governing his moves on HCR…only to see the public option discarded at the end.

    “At the end”? It was ruled out–secretly–as of July 2009:

    Obama continued to refer to it in public as if it were still on the table, knowing it was not.

  36. Mitchell Friedman said:

    “Unemployment was at over 30% when FDR started as president in 1933. If we count as employed those workers at the WPA, PWA, CCC and the like, who were doing real work that dealt with infrastructure and public buildings, roads, bridges, dams and forestry (unlike building a strip mall on spec), the unemployment rate in 1939 was hovering between 3% and 4%.”

    Perhaps you should tell the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics about your novel manner for calculating unemployment; it is laboring under the miataken impression that the unemployment rate in 1939 was 17.2%. Perhaps your use of the word “hovering” was meant to include the 17.2% figure.

  37. Henry, I refer to the Supreme Court’s refusal to consider Mohamed v Jeppesen Dataplan, “leaving in place the en banc ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that endorsed the government’s argument that any legal challenge to any executive branch action must be dismissed immediately once the government invokes” the State Secrets Privilege. This means the right of the President to kill American citizens, or do anything else he wants, cannot be challenged if he merely says the magic words “state secret.”

    Dylan, you assert that the president is “trying to make [progressivism] work in an extremely hostile environment.” I would just repeat Gus’ question: can you point to something Obama has done in office that involved taking a risk for a progressive goal? Merely injuring the Republicans, while delightful, doesn’t count.

  38. Gus, I need to clarify – I do think that Republicans are worse, but not by the margin I would have given in Nov. 2008, and there is a lot that might be better were Democrats the opposition. That pisses me off hugely. I find Obama mendacious – consciously so and in some sense, that makes him more evil than George Bush. Evil, such an old concept, we don’t often use it, we’ve become soft on what’s wrong, a kind of moral impotence because we have to understand that others can have a different opinion. I’m not going to go into the nuances of what I just implied, but there are others – Republicans even who are not evil, they are wrong, but not evil. Obama is evil even when he is right.

    And Mark is wrong (clearly not evil) when he says chill. We are now down to one of several alternatives – If we go with the McTurtle alternative and Obama refuses that, Obama will be blamed for the default and all that it may entail. If we go with 1.7 trillion in cuts and maybe a little revenue increase and/or unemployment extension, we will be cutting much needed services and accomplishing little else, If we go with 4 trillion, just add cuts to entitlements. Show me where Obama “has this one covered” I would say, either he is screwed, we are screwed, or both.

    This is a phony crisis – all that had to happen is the Bush tax cuts expire and the deficit would go down more than we could even “cut.” But our President gave that one away and got nothing for it – nada, zilch. And I’m supposed to think he has got this covered? – I think he is as much in favor of scrapping useful government programs as any teabagger. If you have evidence to the contrary- please cite it. I think tax cuts for the rich were extended because that is exactly what Obama wanted – I don’t think the failure of the public option was a function of a lack of skill on Obama’s part, it is what he wanted. And I think he is going to find a way to cut entitlements – because that is what he wants. If you think I’m wrong, show me. I base my perceptions on evidence, and I find plenty to support what I’m saying.

    I now think that the probability of a default is above 50%. If that happens, Obama is toast, and so are we. But if he finds a way out, a way to cut entitlements another day, we’re still screwed.

    I think that the Republicans are worse, I know it, we have one in the White House now, and he is worse.

    I know, I am the bomb throwing radical here, but I am tired of my own temporizing, of my own moral impotence. But I don’t care if I appear unreasonable. These are not reasonable times or events.

  39. Don, I would point to the economic stimulus bill and the health care bill. I’m sure you would disagree on both counts, but I think both were risky in the sense that they made the president vulnerable to the criticism that he massively expanded government for nothing (if it turned out, or was perceived to be the case, that the policies did not work). I wanted a larger stimulus and a single-payer health plan, but I think he did what he could. I think the idea that this president lacks conviction, and eagerly gives in to Republicans, is naive. I think he’s rather trying to get done what can be done to get liberal policies enacted in a political culture that is too conservative (on both sides of the aisle).

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