Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A budget deal by hook but not by Crook

For two years I have wondered how Clive Crook can continue to lambaste Obama for pursuing policies that Crook agrees with.  In recent weeks the mystery has been solved. Crook thinks that Obama ought to be able to sell policies that please neither left nor right by sheer force of eloquence.  Late last month, he recommended that Obama predetermine the outcome of negotiations with Republicans and champion that outcome in advance. This week, he's urging the President to so overwhelm the electorate with his eloquence that they steamroll a Republican opposition that Crook himself recognizes as beyond reason:
Under present conditions, the administration’s tools for invigorating the recovery are limited, to be sure. However bold and decisive the president chooses to be, he cannot just decree faster growth. But if Democrats and Republicans moved immediately to raise the debt ceiling and promptly to clarify the medium-term fiscal picture – a task that cannot wait until 2013 – they would improve confidence and lessen the risk of a second recession.

The president can play a crucial role in this. Merely calling for unity achieves nothing. But the bin Laden operation gives him fresh political capital, though perhaps not for long. He should use it to impose himself – talking past a stone-deaf Congress to the electorate; advancing cold, clear choices about curbing long-term borrowing; thus making space, should it prove necessary, for renewed short-term stimulus. They call it leadership.

No, they call it fantasy.  Obama -- any president -- is about as likely to convince the American people to demand that their representatives pass his favored mix of tax hikes and spending cuts as he is to singlehandedly take out the rest of al Qaeda.

Please please please Mr. Crook, read a political scientist or two.  Presidents do not overcome a recalcitrant opposition by rallying the public from the bully pulpit; they do not convince the electorate to embrace tax hikes and spending cuts unless someone or group can orchestrate "everybody...[i.e., leaders from both parties] getting in that boat at the same time," as Obama has said he aims to do.  Presidents may seem to convince the public when conditions shift so that the public is willing to try policies they've long been advocating; they may gradually nudge public opinion in a direction toward which it's started to trend; they may, when they have a majority in Congress, push through unpopular policies that are later vindicated by events (or seem to be).  But when they"lead" in the way Crook envisions they suffer the kind of defeat that met Bush Jr. when he tried to privatize social security.

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