April 23, 2011


Obama Chose The Wrong 2012 Issue (John B. Judis, 4/22/11, New Republic)

[F]or the last five months, Republicans have been harping on deficits as the cause of the economic downturn and continuing unemployment. The economy and jobs are still voters' top concern, but in the latest Gallup poll, deficits and spending come in second. That's not because the Congressional Budget Office suddenly found a river of red ink, or because interest rates shot up, or because the unemployment rate has gone up. It's because Republicans have advanced the deficit as the reason for the problems in economy and jobs. They filled in the gap between fact and perception with the idea that things are getting worse and that the reason they are getting worse is because of the deficits.

I am not sure exactly why Republicans have focused on deficits. I suspect it is a combination of reasons. Some of them don't understand modern economics; many of them want to use the peril of the deficit to justify cuts in government spending on social programs; and some of them, perhaps, want to arrest the recovery to improve their election chances in 2012. But the effect is to nullify Democrats' ability to offer popular programs that will fuel growth, save jobs, and reduce people's insecurity.

Obama has, sadly, bought the Republican argument for why the economy is in trouble. This week, he went to a community college in Northern Virginia to rally students there to the cause of the deficit. Here's my expurgated version:

"For a long time, Washington acted like deficits didn't matter. ... And as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. ... Now, if we don't close this deficit, now that the economy has begun to grow again, if we keep on spending more than we take in, it's going to cause serious damage to our economy."

Obama has tried to carve a liberal niche within this retrograde political framework by charging that the Republican plan to cut the deficit would get rid of Medicare and would keep the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. That's all well and good, but Obama is still playing on Republican turf. And it might not work. The last Democratic presidential candidate who based his campaign on deficits was Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale probably would have lost to Ronald Reagan in any case, but he would have won more than Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The other Democratic candidate who tried to make deficits an issue was Al Gore in 2000, and he lost to a candidate he should have defeated easily. And you can be sure that Bill Clinton in 1992 didn't focus on deficits in running against George H.W. Bush.

I know Obama and his political advisers think that by emphasizing deficits they are going to win over independent voters. But as I have argued earlier, Obama is pursuing a political fiction. The independents he needs to attract are primarily white working-class voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They may care about deficits as a stand-in for what they see as wasteful spending on undeserving groups. But their primary concern, as they demonstrated in 2008, is jobs and the economy.

...but they are an aesthetic problem, which is far more important as a matter of political narrative. What ought to make them important to Democrats though is the nature of the aesthetic problem. Huge budget deficits are ugly enough to us that they make us believe that government has, in some sense, failed. To the extent that Democrats are the party of government then it is in their best interest to fix the problem.

Posted by at April 23, 2011 2:47 PM

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