My Turn To Be President

Politico reports on Jeb Bush’s surprisingly frank confession that he believes 2012 was his “time” to run for the presidency, and that he may now have missed his chance:

“This was probably my time,” Bush told “CBS This Morning,” referring to the ongoing presidential campaign. “There’s a window of opportunity, in life, and for all sorts of reasons.”

 

I think we can all quite happily do without a third member of the Bush dynasty ascending to the presidency and making a mockery of American meritocracy. Thanks for sitting this round out, Jeb.

That said, the Florida Republican doesn’t know whether he ever wants to be president.

“Have you made a decision that you don’t want to be president?” asked CBS host Charlie Rose.

“I have not made that decision,” Bush responded.

Uh-oh.

On Austerity, Learning The Wrong Lessons From Europe

Europe Austerity 2

 

As the US presidential election draws closer and the political debate rumbles on, I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated by those voices on both the left and the right, who seek to hold up the example of “Europe” (that homogenised, cohesive whole) as Exhibit A in an attempt to win their economic policy argument.

I am talking about the ongoing “austerity/stimulus debate” – whether America should make drastic and immediate cuts to public spending in order to tackle large government budget deficits, or whether even higher levels of government spending are required in the short term to spur economic growth, before deficit-tackling measures are undertaken at some point in the future.

When talking about these issues, both Democrats and Republicans are playing fast and loose with the truth, and doing the American people (at least those who have already tuned in to the election-year political coverage) a disservice in the process.

On the left, it is fashionable to point at Europe and exclaim that austerity policies are not working because “Europe” has drastically scaled back government spending, and yet is experiencing either a very tepid recovery or an outright double-dip recession. A typical example, from The Washington Post:

Europeans are rebelling against austerity. That’s the read on Sunday’s elections in Greece and France. But why do voters loathe austerity? Perhaps because, as economists have found, efforts to rein in budget deficits can take a wrenching toll on living standards, especially in a recession.

In a recent paper for the International Monetary Fund, Laurence Ball, Daniel Leigh and Prakash Loungani looked at 173 episodes of fiscal austerity over the past 30 years. These were countries that, for one reason or another, cut spending and/or raised taxes to shrink their budget deficits. And the results were typically painful: Austerity, the IMF paper found, “lowers incomes in the short term, with wage-earners taking more of a hit than others; it also raises unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment.”

The left-leaning media across the pond is also keen to seize on this narrative, as the following opinion piece from The Guardian deftly demonstrates:

Third, the president should make it clear he won’t allow government spending cuts to take precedence over job creation. He won’t follow Europe into an austerity trap of slower growth and higher unemployment. While he understands the need to reduce the nation’s long-term budget deficit, he should commit to vetoing any spending cuts until the unemployment rate in the US is down to 5%. Instead, he should commit to further job-creating investments in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure – pot-holed roads, unsafe bridges, inadequate pipelines, woefully-strained public transportation, and outmoded ports.

Finally, Obama should make sure Americans understand the link between America’s fragile recovery and widening inequality. As long as so much of the nation’s disposable income and wealth goes to the top, the vast middle class lacks the purchasing power to fire up the economy. That’s why the so-called “Buffett rule” he has proposed – setting a minimum tax rate for millionaires – needs to be seen as just a first step toward ensuring that the gains from growth are more widely shared. He should vow to do more in his second term.

Such an economic strategy – forcing banks to help distressed homeowners, stopping oil speculation, boosting spending until unemployment drops to 5%, and fighting to ensure economic gains are widely shared – is critical to jobs and growth. It’s the mirror image of Europe’s failed austerity policies.

These arguments do not stand up to scrutiny for several reasons, many of which are well articulated in this piece from Forbes:

The trouble with Europe’s post-crisis budgets, then, isn’t so much that they’ve increased taxes. It’s that they haven’t meaningfully cut spending. “Following years of large spending increases,” Veronique de Rugy explains, “Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Greece — countries widely cited for adopting austerity measures — haven’t significantly reduced spending since 2008.” De Rugy points to data that shows those countries “still spend more than pre-recession levels,” with France and Britain making no cuts, and Italy increasing spending in 2011 “more than the previous reduction” between 2009 and 2010. Without significant, substantial cuts, tax increases alone don’t amount to austerity. Yglesias is correct that tax hikes can contribute to austerity. What tax hikes cannot do, however, is be austerity. Tax hikes are neither necessary nor sufficient for an austerity program.

Inconsistent though it may be with the liberal worldview in the US, this is very true. Government spending, by many measures, is actually higher than pre-recession levels in Britain and other countries. The so-called “austerity” that everyone is wailing about is nothing more than a reduction in the rate of increase in government spending. Furthermore, as anyone living in Britain can easily attest, many of the “austerity” measures have been tax increases, and not spending cuts – which also does little to support the liberal view that draconian spending cuts have stymied an economic recovery.

Also missing from the left-wing take on austerity is an understanding of the fact that, unlike the US, European economies grappling with anaemic growth or double-dip recession do not have the good fortune to be underpinned by the world’s primary reserve currency. It is much easier to enact a large scale stimulus programme while retaining the confidence of the global bond markets if your currency is the US dollar, a fact that is glossed over by many people, including some in the Obama administration who hold up Europe as a cautionary tale of what happens if you fail to meet economic downturn with government stimulus.

The Washington Post reports:

“The situation in Europe is slowing things down,” Obama told donors at the New Amsterdam Theatre. At the home of hedge fund executive Marc Lasry, Obama said that Romney and congressional Republicans favored an austerity plan that would “drastically shrink government,” hurting job growth and middle-income Americans.

“That is fundamentally different from our experience in growing this economy and creating jobs,” Obama said.

Where Obama was subtle, not drawing a direct line between Europe’s approach and Romney, Clinton was not.

The former president said Republicans were adopting “the European economy policy.”

As a European watching the American political debate unfolding, it frustrates me to see such sweeping statements and generalisations being made about other countries, and seeing their actions and policy stances mischaracterised without even the pretence of trying to understand them – and this applies to both sides of the political aisle. I also fear that it does not do much to dispel the false but common notion that most Americans are insular and lacking any real understanding of the world beyond their borders.

This stereotype, where true, is unfortunate enough to the extent that it applies to the general population, but even more concerning when it manifests itself in current and would-be future political office holders.

Dancing With Yourself

Tea Party Protest - Barack Obama

It is hard to disagree with this assessment of recent GOP obstructionism from Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect:

The crux of the matter:

If I sound frustrated—and I am—it’s because we’re in the middle of an absolutely ludicrous scenario. Under a Republican president, the United States endured eight years of disastrous economic stewardship—arguably the worst of the post-war era—that nearly led to a second Great Depression. In response, voters elected a Democratic president and gave him huge majorities in both chambers of Congress. Rather than work with the new president, Republicans ran to the right and promised to defeat this president by any means necessary. They abused institutional rules to block nominees, and imposed a de-facto super-majority requirement on all legislation. Republicans rejected stimulus, the automobile rescue, a climate bill built from their ideas, a health care bill built from their ideas, and a reform bill designed to keep the Great Recession from happening again.

This was an amazingly successful strategy. It destroyed Democratic standing with the public, energized the right-wing fringe, and led to a historic victory in the House of Representatives. Once in command of the House, Republicans pushed hugely draconian budgets, risked a government shutdown, and nearly caused a second economic collapse by threatening to default on the nation’s debt. This reckless behavior depressed the economy, prolonged the recovery, and destroyed trust in the nation’s political institutions. The Speaker of the House has even promised to do this again, if Democrats don’t bow to his demands for greater spending cuts.

The Republican party of today has drifted so far – not just to the right, but into the realm of crazy, where the eight years of disastrous Bush economic stewardship apparently never happened, and the economic malaise is entirely Obama’s fault – that it’s hard for me to see how I could ever bring myself to vote for them. I have joined firmly with those who are hoping for a complete electoral landslide in the upcoming presidential elections, to perhaps convince the GOP to tack back toward a reasonable, pragmatic conservatism.

Of course, this would have been easier if one of the crazies had managed to wrest the nomination away from Mitt Romney. As it is, we will probably have to wait until Romney’s likely defeat in 2012, and then a further tack to the right and an even bigger defeat in 2016 before we might finally have a viable choice between two parties again.

The Hypocrisy of Mitt Romney – Birther Edition

donald-trump-barack-obama-birth-certificate-birtherism

A lot of people have been wondering about the extent to which Mitt Romney would tack back to the centre of the political spectrum in the highly, highly, highly unlikely event that he manages to defeat Barack Obama in November’s contest. And to be fair, Mitt Romney has certainly added fuel to the fire of such speculation by some of his statements, most recently his surprise revelation that everything he has said before about immediately balancing the budget was just a big joke, because he is actually a Keynesian at heart, and knows that to reduce federal spending by $1 trillion in year 1 would not be the most positive thing to do to a fragile economy.

But those people thinking (either worrying or hoping) that a Romney presidency would move to occupy the political centre ground need speculate no more. Because Mitt Romney has now proved beyond question that he is fully and totally beholden to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, and would no sooner do anything to anger that bastion of support than he would chop off his own hand. How do we know this? Because Mitt Romney refused to distance himself from his most high profile campaign surrogate and supporter, Donald Trump, when he said this:

 

And then doubled down with this:

 

Romney, meanwhile, had only this to say when asked about his wayward campaign surrogate:

Mitt Romney said Monday he wasn’t concerned about Donald Trump’s commitment to the “birther” conspiracy, one day before the GOP presidential candidate hosts a fund-raiser alongside the celebrity business magnate.

Asked on his charter plane whether Trump’s questioning of President Barack Obama’s birthplace gave him pause, Romney simply said he was grateful for all his supporters.

“You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” Romney said. “But I need to get 50.1% or more and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

Even when his most high-profile supporter and key surrogate goes totally off the rails and revives his old birther conspiracies prompted by nothing at all, Mitt Romney is too afraid of angering his base to unequivocally disassociate himself from the remarks. Surely no one now harbours any remaining belief that Romney would tack back to the centre if he got elected. Tea Partiers, fear not – you may not like the guy and distrust the sincerity of his convictions, but it doesn’t matter – he’s scared of incurring your wrath, so you have him safely in the bag.

If, in some dystopian world, I had to choose between a President Romney and a President Trump, I think I am minded to go for President Trump. He may be batsh*t insane with an ego the size of one of his towers, but at least I would always know what he really thinks about something.

Obama Syndrome – Tom Friedman’s Diagnosis

Tea Party Protest - Barack Obama

In his latest New York Times column, Thomas Friedman succinctly puts into words what many centrists and probably nearly all frustrated liberals will immediately identify as one of the Obama administration’s biggest political failures thus far into his first term – Obama’s inability to properly sell his accomplishments, and their failure to prevent these accomplishments from being distorted and turned into electoral liabilities by the Republican opposition.

Friedman complains:

Barack Obama is a great orator, but he is the worst president I’ve ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue.

True, though this is an age old complaint about Democratic politics – the inability to remain cohesive and on-message, and to deliver a point that is consistent, compelling, and easy to repeat and digest.

On what is perhaps Obama’s signature first term accomplishment – however imperfect it may be – reforming the US healthcare system, Friedman delivers the kind of blunt, incontrovertible smackdown of Republican talking points that make people like me want to shout out in agreement and kiss the screen:

“Obamacare is socialized medicine,” says the Republican Party. No, no — excuse me — socialized medicine is what we have now! People without insurance can go to an emergency ward or throw themselves on the mercy of a doctor, and the cost of all this uncompensated care is shared by all those who have insurance, raising your rates and mine. That is socialized medicine and that is what Obamacare ends. Yet Obama — the champion of private insurance for all — has allowed himself to be painted as a health care socialist.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. It’s painful that anyone should have to school the Republican party, the self proclaimed champions of fiscal conservatism, in such basic economic concepts as the free rider problem, but if someone has to do it then there is no one who can do so with more style than Tom Friedman. I’m not sure that I have it in me to hear one more Tea Partier lambasting Obamacare and lamenting that the US now has a socialised healthcare system and that he is being made to pay for his neighbour’s keep, without just straight up asking him “well, what the hell do you think you were doing before, idiot?”

And on the somewhat topical subject of government spending and deficits:

Finally, how did Obama ever allow this duality to take hold: “The Bush tax cuts” versus the “Obama bailout”? It should have been “the Bush deficit explosion” and the “Obama rescue.” Sure, the deficit has increased under Obama. It was largely to save the country from going into a Depression after a Bush-era binge that included two wars — which, for the first time in our history, we not only did not pay for with tax increases but instead accompanied with tax cuts — plus a 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that we could not afford, then or now. Congressional Democrats also had a hand in this, but the idea that Bush gets to skate off into history as a “tax-cutter” and not as a “deficit buster” is a travesty. You can’t just blame Fox News. Obama has the bully pulpit.

The way in which Democrats managed to lose control of the narrative and allow the party who led America into two unfunded wars, a round of unfunded tax cuts and an unfunded expansion of Medicare (oh yes – socialised medicine, too) to reclaim any credibility whatsoever in terms of economic understanding or fiscal responsibility will forever astound me. And Friedman is right, Obama has the bully pulpit. He, his team and his spokespeople should have been sending out the right message from the start, and not have allowed themselves to have been forced to play defense.

To be fair – and as Friedman notes – sometimes actions speak louder than words, and in several notable instances the Obama administration’s actions have been as much of a reason for disappointment as the selling of their message. For me, the almost unforgivable failure of the Obama administration was the failure to embrace and push forward the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan, which enjoyed considerable support (if not quite enough to mandate an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate) and which would have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that Obama was serious about medium term deficit reduction. The Obama administration’s reticence on this point enraged many a centrist Obama supporter, and led blogger Andrew Sullivan to declare:

My own view, however, is that Obama badly bungled this by not embracing his current position in the State of the Union and pummeling the GOP with it for months. Bowles Simpson was his commission after all, and yet he dropped it like a stone and pandered to his left when he had a perfect moment to pivot to the debt question. Giving the GOP any credibility on debt by offering nothing of real $4 trillion substance until last week may well be seen as Obama’s greatest mistake in his first term. Now that he has finally offered it, his ability to maintain the high ground on a fair measure to tackle the deficit is much reduced from his January possibility. This is not a meep-meep moment. And it could easily have been, if Obama had shown, yes, courage sooner … On this score, leading from behind has been pretty much a disaster. And there is no longer much time to lead from the front.

So there are problems here of action as well as messaging. I don’t yet believe that this is cause for panic – as I have laid out in previous posts, I am very confident that given his opposition, Obama is heading for a likely landslide reelection victory. But an administration – and a party – that fails to create and stick to a positive narrative on so important a topic, deserves their fair share of woe.

But unfortunately it is not just President Obama and his administration that suffer as a result of their baleful communication efforts. For with every day that passes without a compelling, effective message from the administration about achievements won and plans for the future, the unrepentantly unreformed party of George W. “two unfunded wars” Bush and Richard “deficits don’t matter” Cheney will seem to more and more people like a potentially viable alternative to run the show again.