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Obama On The Ropes

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You’ve been reading it everywhere and hearing it from scores of TV pundits:  The ongoing economic crisis could destroy President Obama’s hopes for a second term.  In a recent interview with Alexander Bolton of The Hill, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean warned that the economy is so bad that even Sarah Palin could defeat Barack Obama in 2012.  Dean’s statement was unequivocal:  “I think she could win.”

I no longer feel guilty about writing so many “I told you so” pieces about Obama’s failure to heed sane economic advice since the beginning of his term in the White House.  A chorus of commentators has begun singing that same tune.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I predicted that our new President would realize that his economic stimulus program was inadequate because he followed the advice from the wrong people.  After quoting the criticisms of a few economists who warned (in January and February of 2009) that the proposed stimulus would be insufficient, I said this:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.

Stephanie Kelton recently provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

*   *   *

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

With the recent announcement of Austan Goolsbee’s planned departure from his brief stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, much has been written about Obama’s constant rejection of the “dissenting opinions” voiced by members of the President’s economics team, such as those expressed by Goolsbee and his predecessor, Christina Romer.  Obama chose, instead, to paint himself into a corner by following the misguided advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Ezra Klein of The Washington Post recently published some excerpts from a speech (pdf) delivered by Professor Romer at Stanford University in May of 2011.  At one point, she provided a glimpse of the acrimony, which often arose at meetings of the President’s economics team:

Like the Federal Reserve, the Administration and Congress should have done more in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 to aid the recovery.  I remember that fall of 2009 as a very frustrating one.  It was very clear to me that the economy was still struggling, but the will to do more to help it had died.

There was a definite split among the economics team about whether we should push for more fiscal stimulus, or switch our focus to the deficit.  A number of us tried to make the case that more action was desperately needed and would be effective.  Normally, meetings with the President were very friendly and free-wheeling.  He likes to hear both sides of an issue argued passionately.  But, about the fourth time we had the same argument over more stimulus in front of him, he had clearly had enough.  As luck would have it, the next day, a reporter asked him if he ever lost his temper.  He replied, “Yes, I let my economics team have it just yesterday.”

By May of 2010, even Larry Summers was discussing the need for further economic stimulus measures, which I discussed in a piece entitled, “I Knew This Would Happen”.  Unfortunately, most of the remedies suggested at that time were never enacted – and those that were undertaken, fell short of the desired goal.  Nevertheless, Larry Summers is back at it again, proposing a new round of stimulus measures, likely due to concern that Obama’s adherence to Summers’ failed economic policies could lead to the President’s defeat in 2012.  Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan of Reuters reported that Summers has proposed a $200 billion payroll tax program and a $100 billion infrastructure spending program, which would take place over the next few years.  The Reuters piece also supported the contention that by 2010, Summers had turned away from the Dark Side and aligned himself with Romer in opposing Peter Orszag (who eventually took that controversial spin through the “revolving door” to join Citigroup):

During much of 2010, Obama’s economic advisers wrestled with a debate over whether to shift toward deficit reduction or pursue further fiscal stimulus.

Summers and former White House economist Christina Romer were in the camp arguing that the recession that followed the financial markets meltdown of 2008-2009 was a unique event that required aggressive stimulus to avoid a long period of stagnation similar to Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s.

Former White House budget director Peter Orszag was among those who cautioned against a further big stimulus, warning of the need to be mindful of ballooning budget deficits.

By the time voters head to the polls for the next Presidential election, we will be in Year Four of our own “lost decade”.  Accordingly, President Obama’s new “Jobs Czar” – General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt – is busy discussing new plans, which will be destined to go up in smoke when Congressional Republicans exploit the opportunity to maintain the dismal status quo until the day arrives when disgruntled voters can elect President Palin.  Barack Obama is probably suffering from some awful nightmares about that possibility.


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Will It Work?

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September 29, 2008

This is the question on everyone’s mind as they ponder the new “bailout bill”, officially known as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.  It is available for everyone to read on the Internet (all 110 pages of it), but most people are looking for answers to the most important questions:  Will it pass and will it work?

Just after midnight on Monday morning, David Rogers, of Politico.com, reported that the bill (which goes to the House floor on Monday and the Senate floor on Wednesday) was still facing resistance from both the right and the left, despite the support voiced by both Presidential candidates.  Republican Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut was quoted in the article as saying that:  “For this to pass, a lot of people are going to have to change their minds”.  The following passage provided more light on the view of this bill from those House Republicans providing resistance to the measure:

Yet a closed-door party meeting Sunday night illustrated all the problems anew.  The session ran for hours, and while Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he would vote for the bill, he could not predict the number of votes he would have for it, and he famously referred to the measure as a “crap sandwich” before his rank and file.

Jackie Kucinich reported for TheHill.com that earlier in the day, Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana had sent out a letter to his fellow Republicans in opposition to this bill:

The decision to give the federal government the ability to nationalize almost every bad mortgage in America interrupts this basic truth of our free market economy …  Republicans improved this bill but it remains the largest corporate bailout in American history, forever changes the relationship between government and the financial sector, and passes the cost along to the American people.  I cannot support it.

The opposition to the bill from the Democratic side was discussed in another Politico.com article:  this one by Ryan Grimm.  Grimm’s article discussed an “intense” Democratic Caucus meeting.  He quoted Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar as describing resistance to the bill coming from across the complete spectrum of Democratic opinion, from liberal to conservative.  California Congressman Brad Sherman had met with Republican Darrell Issa before the meeting.  Sherman’s contribution to the Caucus discussion was described this way by Ryan Grimm:

Sherman spoke out against the bill during the caucus meeting, arguing that billions of dollars would flow to foreign investors, that oversight was lax and that limits on executive compensation were too weak.   Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) said he was leaning toward a no vote, too.

The House vote on the bill is scheduled to take place after a four-hour debate, beginning at 8 a.m. on Monday.

Whether or not this bill will ultimately “work” is another question.  Paul Krugman, Economics Professor at Princeton University, wrote in the Sunday New York Times:

The bailout plan released yesterday is a lot better than the proposal Henry Paulson first put out — sufficiently so to be worth passing.  But it’s not what you’d actually call a good plan, and it won’t end the crisis.  The odds are that the next president will have to deal with some major financial emergencies.

Steve Lohr’s report from the Sunday New York Times, discussed the outlook for this plan, as voiced by Robert E. Hall, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative research group at Stanford.  Lohr observed:

There was no assurance that the bailout plan would work as intended to ease financial turmoil and economic uncertainty.

Lohr’s article then focused on the opinion of Nouriel Roubini, an economist at the Stern School of Business at New York University:

The $350 billion to $400 billion in bad credit reported by the banks so far could eventually exceed $1.5 trillion, he estimated, as banks are forced to write off more bad loans, not only on more housing-related debt, but also for corporate lending, consumer loans, credit cards and student loans.

The rescue package, if successful, would make the recognition of losses and the inevitable winnowing of the banking system more an orderly retreat than a collapse. Yet that pruning of the banking industry must take place, economists say, and it is the government’s role to move it along instead of coddling the banks if the financial system is going to return to health.

A more unpleasant perspective appeared in an editorial published in the September 25 edition of The Economist:

If the economics of Mr Paulson’s plan are broadly correct, the politics are fiendish.  You are lavishing money on the people who got you into this mess. Sensible intervention cannot even buy long-term relief:  the plan cannot stop house prices falling and the bloated financial sector shrinking. Although the economic risk is that the plan fails, the political risk is that the plan succeeds.  Voters will scarcely notice a depression that never happened.  But even as they lose their houses and their jobs, they will see Wall Street once again making millions.

Whatever your definition of “success” might be for this plan, the experts agree that things aren’t going to return to “normal” for a long time, if ever.