Barack Obama’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post today is a bit of a disappointment. It reads like political boilerplate. And it’s unnecessary: the President is far more effective when he speaks–and he has gotten a bit more pointed in the past few days, making it clear that the sort of “stimulus” that Republicans support represents the failed economic policies–the fetishizing of tax cuts–that helped lead to the current mess. I have reservations about the stimulus package. Any sentient human would; I’m sure Obama himself does. But the bottom line remains the same: the government needs to take an active, immediate role in goosing the economy lest we fall into a deflationary spiral. If I were a member of congress, I’d even, reluctantly, vote for a bill that included funding for a John McCain-Joe Lieberman buddy movie–think of all the grips and make-up people who’d be employed–or a new military kazoo band. We need to put people to work, get money flowing through the system. It needs to be done now.
Some further points:
1. Obama comes to office needing to do three things–stimulate the economy, rebuild the infrastructure after thirty years of neglect, and reform (and refund) necessary government services. As I’ve written elsewhere, it may have been a mistake to include all these projects into one bill. The reform and refunding of government services should have been done separately. There needs, for example, to be a serious national discussion about how and whether to fight sexually transmitted diseases–it deserves more consideration than the mockery it’s getting in the current debate. Harold Pollack makes a compelling argument for all the health funding that’s being dropped from the bill here. I could make a worthy case for retaining the much-derided $50 million in funding for the National Endowment of the Arts–it would stimulate immediate jobs and rectify the scandalous national decline in the teaching of music and art. As I said, it would be nice to deal with these items more deliberately and carefully–and I would hope that they will be, even if they’re dropped from the bill. But the job before Congress right now is to get something passed that injects money into the system, as quickly as possible. If that means worthy programs have be delayed, so be it.
2. In 1993, I did a pretty shabby job of covering Bill Clinton’s economic plan. It was, in sum, a very good plan–it worked wonders for the economy–but I focused on the mishaps. (Clinton, for example, pulled the rug out from under House Democrats by offering a carbon tax, which they voted for…and then the President removed it from the bill.) Clinton couldn’t get any Republican votes for the package. A disaster! He had trouble getting Democratic votes for it; he had to beg Bob Kerrey for his vote to get it through the Senate. His presidency was in ruins! He had lost all credibility! (Actually, those of us who had focused on some big ugly trees rather than the blooming forest were the ones who had lost credibility.) It pains me to watch normally reasonable colleagues overreacting to Obama’s situation now–which is far less dire than Clinton’s was. Some form of stimulus will pass. If it doesn’t revive the economy, then more stimulus will be passed. Obama’s maintaining the proper balance of reaching out to Republicans, making some compromises, but staying firm on the need for a bill that includes public works as well as tax cuts. A Republican Senator, a vocal opponent of the bill, told me the other day: “The guy has really impressed us. We may not vote for the bill, and he may have to learn that you have to give us more than he wants to give us to make us happy, but he’s made a really strong start that will work to his benefit down the road.”
3. The legislative process is as ugly as a wart. We only notice it when an earth-shattering monstrosity like the stimulus bill comes gallumphing down the track, but there is no such thing as elegant legislation. You always have to throw in a little sweetener–the museum of organized crime in Las Vegas, the military kazoo band, whatever–if you want to cobble together the votes needed to win. This is business as usual–and Barack Obama is guilty as charged: he’s trying to get this thing through the old-fashioned way. So what? What’s new is his priorities: his efforts to put the needs of the working poor and the unemployed ahead of the wealthy, to build a new green economy, to fund inner city education and remake the health insurance system. That is what the American people voted for after an era of Republican neglect. The messiness of the current process is not only inevitable, it also says very little about Obama’s ability to deliver on those very necessary goals.