Ten Miles Square


August 13, 2012 11:30 AM The President’s Job

By Jonathan Bernstein

Brad DeLong gets it. He’s looking at a quote from the upcoming Michael Grunwald book about the early years of the Obama presidency, with the president saying “Look, I get the Keynesian thing. But it’s not where the electorate is.” DeLong:

If Obama does not understand that his job is not to please the electorate by indulging its prejudices but rather to manage the path to a strong economy, he needs to be told what his job is every hour of every day until he does understand that.

That’s exactly right, and it’s especially true within the first couple years of the administration, when politically the goal has to be to build the best possible economy for re-election.

Right now, Obama can say any economically illiterate thing he wants, and as long as it doesn’t cause the Euro Zone to implode somehow, it probably doesn’t matter at all.

I will say one thing in potential defense of Obama…Politico has this quote in the context of the staff wanting Obama to make stimulus speeches. It’s not crazy for Obama, in that context, to take into account what he talks about in public, as long as it doesn’t prevent him from continuing to do the right thing on policy. I think it’s highly unlikely that Obama could generated massive support for Keynesian policies by giving the correct speeches.

On the other hand, I do think that there are two groups who probably could have used additional education in 2009 who might have been receptive to a White House message that was never as clear as it could have been: Democratic opinion leaders, and elite journalists and pundits. Obama might have fully understood “the Keynesian thing,” but I think there’s pretty good evidence that quite a few “neutral” pundits who were inclined to at least give the new president a chance really didn’t understand basic Keynesian concepts. In particular, I suspect that a lot of people really didn’t know that there were sound, boring, reasons fully supported by mainstream economics for running very large short-term budget deficits. And I suspect that that group includes quite a few Democratic Members of Congress.

I’ve also increasingly come around to the idea that the original stimulus probably should have included built-in triggers that would have automatically increased spending (and perhaps tax cuts) based on economic indicators, perhaps along with other triggers to shut things down if the economy was recovering. Perhaps Olympia Snowe and the Benator wouldn’t have gone for that, either, but I’d like to know whether anyone thought about trying it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Anonymous on August 13, 2012 11:27 AM:

    Yes, Romney also understands the basic economics, too. He supported stimulus before he was against "the" stimulus.

    I don't know if a president can educate the unwilling mass. I don't think FDR would have been successful in 1920s before the crash. People need to be ready to hear it.

    I think it's more of the teachers and journalists' jobs who can hold neutrality thus credibility, with depth explanations, to educate the public about Kenyan concept and economic history in general.

    Obama does not has time for a hour lecture just to explain through economics.
    Nor does most voters.

    i think it's partially failure of public education. I hope we are changing though.
    most voters do not believe that Obama is a socialist because they at least know what socialism is. that's not so bad.

  • sjw on August 13, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Exactly right. Obama, as president, had a responsibility to be Communicator-in-Chief: he abdicated that responsibility. For me as an Obama supporter, this was one of those WTF episodes in his early administration that still has me mystified. And angry. I knew at the time (because, n.b., of Paul Krugman's many warnings) that Obama was not doing what he needed to do economically and politically; I knew that there'd be problems down the road. And here we are. It didn't have to be this way. Obama is partially responsible for the weak economy and the anemic recovery.

  • tb on August 13, 2012 2:48 PM:

    two words: Mitch McConnell

  • Doug on August 13, 2012 5:37 PM:

    I'm with the first poster in this. Without the scarifying effects produced by the Great Depression PRIOR to his election, it's doubtful if FDR would have supported Keynesian methods to fight it. Don't forget, his first response when the economic picture seemed to be brightening was to cut spending.

    sjw, I really don't understand your charge that President Obama failed to do what was needed "economically and politically".
    The Recovery Act passed with NO Republican support in the House. Most importantly, not all Democrats in the House voted for it. The question too many people here and elsewhere don't seem to ask themselves is: How many MORE Democratic, aka Blue Dog, votes would have been lost had larger sums been included in the Recovery Act? I don't know, but I'll bet Rep. Pelosi does and I have no doubt she so informed President Obama.
    Where anyone gets the idea that Presidents can, except in very rare moments, snap their fingers and have Congress comply with their wishes, I really don't know. It wasn't the case BEFORE 2009 and yet I continually see people expecting it of THIS President!
    I, too, have been disappointed over the past four years, but I tend to place the blame where it belongs...

  • sjw on August 13, 2012 9:39 PM:

    That Obama failed to do what was needed economically and politically:
    The Recovery Act was a clusterfuck. A clusterfuck is a complicated phenomenon that has a number of contributing causes. All I'm saying is that Obama made his contribution. He could have been proactive instead of reactive; in particular, he could have done a better job of selling the stimulus. (He might also have designed a better, albeit not necessarily larger, stimulus. Sure, a larger stimulus was probably not possible politically.) That would have involved, say, a news conference every day. What's more, he could have at least pushed for more stimulus. He certainly didn't have to engage in the happy talk about a so-called economic turnaround some two years ago and then started talking up fiscal austerity. Instead, he could have pushed for more stimulus. Would he have gotten it? Almost certainly not. (See the "Mitch McConnell" comment above.) But it would have made him stronger for the coming election.

    Ok, this is revisionist history. I'm voting for Obama. But Obama made his reelection a lot harder than it needed to be. And like it or not, it's his economy now.