Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama, the Budget, and Political Calculation

After the State of the Union, I wrote that Michele Bachmann will get Obama re-elected. That bit of poorly informed speculation was based on my impression that Obama was going to attempt to make a meaningful compromise with the Republicans, which would satisfy most Americans but would be insufficient to the Tea Party, causing them to blow a gasket and split the Republican party. (I wish I had written it that succinctly at the time.)

My readers will be shocked to know that either Obama's team doesn't read this blog, or else values the advice at the price I charge for it. The budget he released recently is a defiant declaration of his intention to do nothing about our fiscal problems. By doing so, he seems to be daring the Republicans to put their neck out and suggest unpopular cuts, which means his calculation is that people don't really believe there is a budget problem, and he can win reelection by pandering to the interest groups that form the core of the Democratic Party.

Aside from my dismay at my inability to set the agenda in Washington, I have a few thoughts:

1) The politics of this situation are interesting. Yuval Levin suggests that people are not as short-sighted as Obama's approach seems to expect. I would guess that Obama's team has a lot of polling showing that we are, as a country, short-sighted and incapable of focusing on a debate as abstract and impersonal as the one over our budget. But I think his strategy fails to take into account the passion levels within the electorate. This budget, and the approach to governing it represents, will unite the factions within the Republican party, and give energy (and a larger voice) to the Tea Party. Meanwhile, his supporters will be lukewarm: yes, he didn't cut much, but he did offer to cut programs they hold dear, and the liberal blogs have been calling on him to stand and fight the Republican enemy. He had all the passion on his side last time: can he win without it?

2) Liberals like Paul Krugman are already attacking proposed cuts by the Republicans, so are some Republicans. But even Krugman is now acknowledging that something has to be done. He says:

In a better world, politicians would talk to voters as if they were adults. They would explain that discretionary spending has little to do with the long-run imbalance between spending and revenues. They would then explain that solving that long-run problem requires two main things: reining in health-care costs and, realistically, increasing taxes to pay for the programs that Americans really want.

I think his solutions ('reining in health-care costs' I would guess means further nationalizing care) are not going to be popular ones. But if both sides of the debate start saying there's a problem, and only the Republicans offer a solution, it might help them, even if the solution isn't entirely popular. If Obama's do-nothing strategy wins over voters even when every expert and pundit on both sides is saying something needs to be done, it means we've become essentially an ungovernable nation.

3) People tend to see meaning when it isn't there. And people tend to believe their opponents have a well-thought-out long term plan. But often, politicians are swept up by events, or carried along by their desire to stay popular and get re-elected, and aren't thinking more than one move ahead. Stanley Kurtz thinks Obama is a socialist, has written a book about it, and views this budget as a step closer to his imposition of socialism on the United States. Obama's definitely far to the left, and probably wishes the US functioned more like Europe. His beliefs are no doubt reflected in the budget. But I don't think he has some devious plan to manipulate the US into a socialist position: I just think he's trying to get reelected and thinks this is the way to do it.

I think it is possible, even likely, that Obama is not as smart as either his supporters or opponents think. Sure, he's very intelligent, but his reaction to the increasing budget crisis and the last election is essentially more of the same. Perhaps he just isn't visionary enough to come up with any good alternatives.

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