Friday, August 10, 2012

Obama and "the Keynesian thing"

Brad DeLong shares some nuggets from Grunwald's book, including this quotation of Obama: "Look, I get the Keynesian thing. But it's not where the electorate is."

Imagine if President Johnson said "Look, I get the equality of the races thing. But it's not where the electorate is".

Democracy is important, but it doesn't determine scientific results and it is also a process. That means that at the very least you speak clearly to the public on the science - you have an obligation to be honest. It also means that you can persuade the public you think public opinion is wrong. It's not a hard case to make and Americans are intelligent. Finally, democracy doesn't delegitimize your Constitutional authority. The electorate said their piece to Obama in 2008. They said he would do a better job leading the country through the crisis than McCain and Palin. He should take their word for it, and so should Congress, and do what they think is right. Future elections are there to discipline public representatives, but they are not there to turn republican government into a perpetual plebiscite. Man up. And if you're not re-elected but do the right thing that's four years well spent.


  1. I think Obama is skeptical of Keynesian stimulus, at least in a 'rising tide lifts all boats' sense, "not where the electorate is" is just politico-speak or an ad-hoc justification.

    1. While I agree that it was counterproductive for Obama to reject more activist measures, I think it's important to have some perspective. LBJ was an extraordinary, highly atypical president. Every previous post-Civil War president -- including those who personally rejected white supremacy -- did reason "it's not where the electorate is."

      And it's not just that LBJ listened to his better angels. We like a narrative where presidents make policy. From such a perspective, we look back and see that Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ all Got Shit Done. We rightly celebrate them for doing it. But they all happened to enjoy huge majorities in congress. Obama didn't and doesn't have that.

    2. Your second paragraph is important. The "Congress won't pass a trillion and a half but they will pass 800 billion" is a good argument for getting 800 billion in my opinion, and it's a better argument than that the public won't like it (because we're a republic, not a plebiscite).

      But then what happens after you get your 800 billion.

      You should keep making the case loudly for more. At the very least you should be surreptitiously pushing for more. But Obama did neither of those things. He started loudly making the case for reducing deficits. That was the wrong response.

      The only real reason to vote for him this time is that Romney and Johnson are even worse.

    3. "Every previous post-Civil War president -- including those who personally rejected white supremacy -- did reason "it's not where the electorate is."

      There were 2 gruesome lynchings in 1936. After that, Gallup showed a large majority of Americans supporting Anti-lynching legislation, including federal intervention. This included a majority in the South.

      So in early 1937 the NAACP went to work. Their bill flew thru the House and they had a majority of Senaors verbally in favor, including some Southern Senators. FDR was President.

      The bill never survived the filibuster. I would suggest that this is the way the Elites, FDR included, wanted it. Can't put this off on the People.

    4. @Daniel-

      I agree. Until last year, I thought Obama's strategy blunders unforgivable. The only defense I can make of him on that point is that he seems belatedly to have seen the error, and has pushed loudly for more stimulus by various means: the infrastructure bank, the jobs program, his proposed budget, etc. Of course only the payroll tax cut passed, and even there O annoyed me by waiting until after the 2010 election to pick a fight with the Republicans about it.


      A lynching law is one thing. Federal enforcement of black peoples' full rights as citizens, against the wishes of the southern states, is another. Northern support for it collapsed when it was attempted during Reconstruction, and it definitely wasn't recovered in the 30s or 40s, outside of Communist Party circles.

  2. Obama has it way worse than LBJ.

    The 64 cra was a gimme. By 1957, the house had already passed what was essentially the 64 version. So the action was in the Senate.

    There, LBJ had 21 out of 22 Senators from the 11 former confederate states who swore to oppose. Add Robert Byrd and you are up to 22. All but one were from his own party. They all kept their word.

    The rest of the Senators, including Barry Goldwater, were verbally on record as being pro civil rights. But the 78-22 majority was deceptive. Why? The Filibuster. You needed 2/3rds to close debate.

    So the White Supremacists needed 34 to win, but only had 22 in the bag. And this was the historical ruse. They could always make up that number by finding some collaborators. On the Democratic side, there went those who wanted to maintain the party's monopoly of the region. On the Republican side, you have those who wanted to deny a Democratic President a victory and/or cause discord within the party he opposed. By 64, you also had Goldwater's plans to take the South in the next election.

    So the game was to convince 67 out of 78 Senators (46 dems and 32 Repubs) to simply vote the way they said they'd vote.

    To make matters easier for LBJ, the minority leader (Dirksen) had a strong civil rights record. Unlike Ike, he did not have to face a segregationist Majority Leader. For the uninitiated, that would be of course *cough* LBJ.

    LBJ, Dirksen, Mansfield & Co got 71 to do what they said they'd do. (5 R's and 2 Northern D's collaborated with evil). Cloture was invoked. The Regime saw the beginning of the end.

    I would be very surprised if the math was this easy for Obama.

  3. Daniel, Obama is probably not very Keynesian himself in the first place. Saying it's because of his electorate is probably a cop-out in his part.

    Let's remember, what sort of a person proposes increases in income tax rates during a recession? Someone who doesn't understand or doesn't follow Keynesian economics. What kind of a person focuses more on "budgetary reform" rather than rapid recovery out of the recession during his term? Again, someone who is not very Keynesian in outlook. But most of all, what sort of a person presides over a slowdown in public sector spending (state and federal combined) during a recession? Again, not a very Keynesian person.

    You yourself pointed out that Obama does what he does not as capitulation to his opponents, but out of his own conviction in those ideas.

    Compared to Bush Jr., Clinton, Reagan, Kennedy, or Eisenhower, Obama is among the least Keynesian of US Presidents. This is not an exaggeration.

  4. While I still like Obama, I find it depressing he hasn't been enough of a Keynesian in pushing for more stimulus. Still, I'd rather vote for him than Mitt Romney - though Romney seems to be more sane and moderate than certain members of his party, I think he'd be under pressure to do more radical things from that faction, and I don't want to see that happen.

  5. First, it's worth pointing out that the issue of racial equality was not one of knowledge and science. It was ideology through and through. So it's not a really good comparison.

    Second, the Constitutional protection of the right to petition is pretty strong evidence that the US government system is expected to be subject to such sorts of public pressures.

  6. Obama: “Look, I get the Keynesian thing. But it’s not where the electorate is.”

    And Obama is wrong.

    The evidence over the past few years:

    “Those who had heard at least something about the stimulus program were then asked whether the stimulus was the right or wrong thing to do for the country. A solid majority (55 percent) thought the stimulus program was the right thing to do.“

    Americans overwhelmingly want Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds,

    “Fifty-two percent of Americans interviewed Wednesday night are in favor of Congress passing a roughly $800 billion economic stimulus package; 38% are opposed.”

    “The latest Gallup poll shows that support for the stimulus package has reached 59 percent in favor and just 33 percent opposed, despite the fact that the question mentions a price tag of “at least $800 billion.” That’s up from 52-38 in favor on February 4″


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