Who's afraid of Obama's overreaching?

The president-elect shouldn't squander his mandate reassuring conservatives about his economic plan. The real danger is in underreaching.

Published November 26, 2008 11:38AM (EST)

I don't know whether Barack Obama can get the economy out of the ditch, but so far his moves have been reassuring. Most important, he's inched carefully into the breach created by the lame-duck, clueless Bush administration.

But it may be too carefully. I find myself wondering whether there's more he or his team could do to change the awful terms of the Citigroup bailout, for instance. And did he have anything to say about the Fed's $600 billion plan to buy more troubled mortgage-backed securities, which even Paul Krugman can't understand?

I watched Obama's Tuesday press conference thinking he may be trying a little too hard to reassure Republicans he's concerned about "fiscal responsibility," as though Republicans have a claim to any kind of responsibility after the last eight years.  Singling out a relatively tiny program that rewards millionaire farmers, as Obama did, isn't going to reassure anybody that he's got a secret weapon for cutting pork. Nor is his promise to go over the budget line by line. Maybe these are a needed sop to people afraid of Great Society overreaching, but I'm not sure he should be worried about that. I'm most afraid of underreaching.

I have been a great advocate of trusting Obama in this transition, and for the most part, I do. It's early to second-guess his appointments, and I'm not inclined to, because they all seem sound. (I think Glenn Greenwald and other bloggers deserve a round of applause for making it politically impossible for him to appoint John Brennan to a top intelligence post. Obama's reported decision to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn't surprising and probably merits its own column.) On the economy, Andrew Leonard has already laid out the reasons Timothy Geithner was a strong pick for Treasury secretary -- mainly, his relatively early (if still belated) recognition of the problems with the greed-inspired toxic phantasms of the lending industry.

And while Greenwald today sounded some valid warning notes about the kvelling over Geithner and National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers -- making the important point that both of them are implicated in the deregulation that led to the current collapse, and the overreliance on monetary policy that slowed a strong response to the crisis -- it's going to be hard to find anyone experienced in government who wasn't misguided about those things. The question is, how early did Obama's new team members realize they were wrong, and what did they do? (Two must-reads on this issue: John Cassidy's New Yorker profile of Ben Bernanke, which shows how everyone at the Fed, including Geithner, was behind the curve, and how they have tried to play catch-up; and John Judis' disturbing piece about Obama's Council of Economic Advisors chair Christina Romer, who likewise seems to have realized too late that monetary policy alone couldn't stop the slide.)

The bigger question about Obama's economic plan is going to be whether and when he'll be able to tell the truth about how much blame the Bush administration bears for the current mess, and what it's going to take to get us out of it. Speaking today, the president-elect again talked about the need for bipartisanship in this time of crisis. Meanwhile, Grover Norquist was on CNBC blaming the crisis on Democrats retaking control of Congress in 2006 and raising the specter of repealing Bush's tax cuts for the rich. Whatever the problem, the solution for most Republicans is tax cuts for the rich, even after the Bush economic agenda brought us to the brink of ruin. Bravo to David Sirota for stating the factually true and obvious: Bill Clinton's tax increases on the wealthy after the last Bush recession helped usher in an era of prosperity.

The issue isn't as simple as tax cuts or tax hikes, and this economic downturn is much more complex and troubling than that of the early '90s. But Democrats need to say, every chance they get, that they are inheriting a crisis caused by an overdose of Republican, free-market economic policy, which tried to establish a tax-cutting, regulation-slashing, winner-take-all, loser-gets-nothing (unless he runs a big dumb corporation that took unconscionable risks driven by greed, and then he gets a bailout) paradise. I wanted Obama to say that in Chicago this afternoon.

Even as I write that, I know that's not the president we elected. As much as we on the left like to think we're his base, and like to talk about how much he owes us, Obama made a conscious decision to pitch himself as a post-partisan guy who'd appeal to centrists and even Republicans. I wrote about that during the primary season; Digby writes about it here. Now, he did hone a more populist message in the last months of the campaign, and I believe he won largely because people believed he'd deliver real solutions to the economic crisis. Obama himself noted that today, saying, "We had a decisive win, because of the extraordinary desire for change on the part of the American people."

But he then went on say that "it's important we enter into the administration with a sense of humility, and recognize that wisdom isn't the monopoly of any one party." I'm sure he's right; it just doesn't feel that way right now. As Obama speaks to the other party with respect and diplomacy, I desperately want him to remember that he'll never have a window like this one to make big economic and political change. There's actually a bipartisan consensus behind a big domestic stimulus package; next week we'll be asking experts what it should do. It's fine for Obama to talk nicely to conservatives; I just frankly hope he's listening mostly to liberals as he shapes his economic plan.

Tuesday's short press conference also gave us a window onto what reporters are concerned about: whether Obama is confusing people about who's president (if only) and whether he's going to "overreach."  Oy. That's why I'm largely inclined to give Obama a pass until he's actually president, and can do things -- rather than just talk about them, and have the media worry about problems that don't exist. Jan. 20 can't come soon enough for me.



By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections