We’ve reached the stage in Obama’s presidency when he can’t seem to do anything right. Even his summer house is on fire. At a similar point in Jimmy Carter’s presidency Carter collapsed in a road race. (I urge Obama to refrain from strenuous athletics until his approval rating gets back above 44%.) Everyone’s piling on–from the left as well as the right and the center. It’s almost enough to make my inner contrarian demand that I defend the guy. Almost, but not quite.
Here’s the thing: When other presidents have reached this point–at least other Democratic presidents, Carter and Bill Clinton–they have recognized the problem and tried to get fresh advice. Carter had a series of excessively well-publicized meetings with critics. Clinton met secretly and more effectively with non-liberal strategist Dick Morris. And Obama?
The president is in a situation in which virtually none of his considered beliefs–in Keynesian economics, in the power of redistributive populism, in coalition politics, in his own oratorical skill–is being affirmed by the real world. It’s like the period Thomas Kuhn talks about in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when scientists are working along within the old “paradigm” but the data start coming back funny. Most scientists just ignore the discordant data and keep plodding along. A few start to question the “paradigm.” You’d want a President in tough times to be one of the latter, no? You’d expect someone like Obama to undertake some reevaluation. As Bret Stephens noted recently, genuinely smart people know what they don’t know–or in this case they know what they used to know but now aren’t so sure about anymore.
Take Keynesianism. I’ve always assumed that Keynesian remedies–e.g. government deficit spending–worked. Certainly deficit spending seemed to work for Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. And Paul Krugman may well be right that the only problem with Obama’s stimulus is that it wasn’t big enough. But you can’t say that anymore with certainty, can you? The data–big stimulus,weak recovery–hardly reinforce the paradigm with anything like inarguable clarity. And there are some respected economists–Kenneth Rogoff, and Greg Mankiw, to name two–who question whether the classic Keynesian paradigm still holds in the current slump. Has Obama read them? Consulted them? No need to make a show of it like Carter. He can do it quietly. But has he?
Or is it possible that Obama is … what did they call his predecessor … intellectually incurious?