Top 10 Things Obama Could Have Done Differently: Excessively well-sourced Obama boosters are now channeling, not just White House spin but White House self-pity. Both Ezra Klein and Jonathan Alter wonder aloud why our intelligent, conscientious, well-meaning, data-driven President is taking a “pummeling.” “What could Obama have done?” (Klein) “What, specifically, has he done wrong .. .?” (Alter)
They’re kidding, right? There are plenty of things Obama could have done differently. Most of these mistakes were called out at the time. Here, off the top of my head, are ten things Obama could have done:
1. Not subcontracted out the details of the 2009 stimulus to interest-group-addled Congressional Democrats. Instead, he could have drawn up his own plan that relied more on large, quick payroll tax cuts rather than the “shovel ready” infrastructure projects that, as Obama later admitted, weren’t shovel ready and (in the case of home-weatherization efforts) were delayed most of the year while bureaucrats figured out how to apply union-backed “prevailing wage” regulations. And why do we think aid to state and local governments–a stimulus centerpiece–had such a big Keynesian “multiplier”? Didn’t many states use the money to pay down their debts rather than retain workers?
2. Sold his health care reform as a valuable benefit for voters that would give them security (they’d be covered) and freedom (they could leave their jobs without losing insurance) rather than as an eat-your-peas plan that would not only “bend the cost curve” by denying treatments but somehow actually reduce the deficit–a sales pitch that assured Obamacare would be unpopular and vulnerable long after Dems rammed it through Congress. At the time, New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza said that Obama had “staked his presidency” on Budget Director Peter Orszag’s notion that “health care reform is deficit reduction.” It was a stupid bet. He lost it.
3. Made the UAW take a pay cut. Whoever else is to blame, the UAW’s demands for pay and work rules clearly contributed to the need for a taxpayer-subsidized auto bailout. To make sure that future unions were deterred from driving their industries into bankruptcy, Obama demanded cuts in basic pay of … exactly zero. UAW workers gave up their Easter holiday but didn’t suffer any reduction in their $28/hour base wage. Wouldn’t a lot of taxpayers like $28 hour jobs? Even $24 an hour jobs?
4. Pivoted! In 2010, after the health care bill passed, Obama was going to “pivot” to jobs but wasn’t able to do that when … yeah, I don’t remember what prevented him from doing it either. What’s that FDR quote Alter likes to trot out, about “bold, persistent experimentation”? That is not the attitude the Obama White House gives off when it comes to jobs. Maybe the Weitzman profit-sharing plan isn’t the answer. Maybe a use-it-or-lose-it credit card won’t work. Maybe a neo-WPA paying minimum wages wouldn’t attract unemployed middle class workers–though it could be tried in one or two states. But Obama’s attitude has been: “I tried A. I proposed B. So I propose B again. And again. And again.”
5. Not pursued a zombie agenda of “card check” and “comprehensive immigration reform”–two misguided pieces of legislation that Obama must have known had no chance of passage but that he had to pretend to care about to keep key Democratic constituencies on board. What was the harm? The harm was that these issues a) sucked up space in the liberal media, b) made Obama look feckless at best, delusional at worst, when they went nowhere; c) made him look even weaker because it was clear he was willing to suffer consequence (b) in order to keep big Democratic constituencies (labor, Latinos) on board.
6. Dispelled legitimate fears of “corporatism“–that is, fears that he was creating a more Putin-style economy in which big businesses depend on the government for favors (and are granted semi-permanent status if they go along with the program). I don’t think Obama is a corporatist, but he hasn’t done a lot to puncture the accusations. What did electric carmaker Tesla have to promise to get its Dept. of Energy subsidies? Why raid GOP-donor Gibson’s guitars and not Martin guitars? We don’t know. At this point, you have to think the president kind of likes the ambiguity–the vague, implicit macho threat that if you want to play ball in this economy, you’re better off on Team Obama. That’s a good way to guarantee Team Obama will be gone in 2013.
7. Stolen some populist Tea Party thunder by going vigorously after Wall Street. Even Alter says Obama “neglected to use his leverage over the banks and failed to connect well with an angry public.” (Alter was also the first to get Obama’s admission of “shovel-ready” ignorance. How many does it take, Jon?)
8. Not appointed pro-union innovators to NLRB who try to hamstring our biggest remaining industrial exporter by preventing it from opening a non-union factory in South Carolina–and then not had his spokesman say there’s nothing the president can do about it because, hey, the NLRB is “independent.”
9. Faced with Republican demands for leaner government, embraced them! Instead of letting GOPs make him the champion of bigger government and higher taxes, Obama could have said he thought higher taxes are probably inevitable but that he wasn’t going to raise them or cut a penny from benefits until he was sure all the fat has been wrung out of Washington. Become Dr. Cut-the-Bloat! Instead of letting his top management official advertise for a new $80,000-a-year “deputy speechwriter,” tell him to lead a government-wide diet of the sort private companies conduct all the time. Publicize and promote the agency heads who cut their staffs and lower their budget requests instead of those who protect their turf. Have some “RIFs”–actual layoffs of redundant bureaucrats. The goal would not just be to reduce the deficit but to shrink the government to a level that’s … how do they put it … sustainable. This would be the greatest gift Obama could give to liberalism, and it would leave the Republicans gasping for air, speechless, Don’t they teach “co-optation” in Alinsky School? Given the choice between a triangulator and someone who acts like a triangulator, people will vote for the real triangulator every time.
10. Defend the core of Medicare, a popular universal program that works and (according to Orszag) is cutting costs, rather than proposing to shrink Medicare by raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67. It seems like only yesterday Democrats were trying to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55–a political winner. Now the party has to defend a standard bearer who wants to raise taxes but who has no sympathy for the most valuable things those taxes pay for. (Screw granny for “green jobs”!).
Would doing these 10 things have revived the economy? Who knows. Probably not. FDR didn’t really revive the economy either until World War II began, as Alter knows. But Obama would have shown leadership and creativity. He wouldn’t be both unsuccessful and disdained.
P.S.: I’m also not saying that Obama is necessarily headed towards a failed presidency in the larger judgment-of-history sense. Just a single-term presidency. If his health care reform sticks, he’ll go down as a success in a way Jimmy Carter won’t. One day soon we may look back on 2011 with fond longing. But that’s not the question Klein and Alter asked.
Update: Frum nominates three mistakes. Two of them aren’t on the above list, which of course doesn’t mean they weren’t mistakes. He also adds detail to #1. …
Backfill: More on use-it-or-lose-it cards as a stimulus trick here. …