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To Obama's Progressive Critics: Take a Deep Breath

Note: this is a guest post from Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, offering his own take on the debate over President Obama's handling of the stimulus legislation. We invite and intend to publish different points of view on this subject, as part of our continuing debate on the extent to which Democrats should accomodate, on philosophical, strategic or tactical grounds, "bipartisan" approaches to the administration's agenda.

The stimulus plan, President Obama’s first serious attempt to change the way Washington works, is hitting a stonewall of partisan rigidity. Republicans are the worst offenders, but Obama is also getting strafed from his left.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman came out blasting yesterday, all but calling the president a postpartisan wimp.

Obama’s stimulus plan, he said, is too small to plug the hole in our economy created by faltering private demand. And he chided the president for allowing a bipartisan group of Senate moderates to strip various provisions out of the House bill. In language that could qualify for a Pulitzer Prize in hyperbole, Krugman claimed that the dastardly centrists would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs and cut vital health care and food programs, while offering new a fat tax break to affluent homeowners.

On food stamps and aid to states, Krugman makes a fair point. But some of the education provisions are more questionable and the housing credit, properly targeted on first-time homebuyers, could help to halt the slide in housing prices. In general, Krugman’s outrage seems out of proportion to the actual differences between the House and Senate bills.

If size matters, as Krugman insists, it’s worth pointing out that the Senate plan is bigger ($827 billion vs. the House’s $819 billion). Many economists believe that the plan’s details matter less than its scale, because they believe what’s essential now is to boost the confidence and “animal spirits” of U.S. consumers, businesses and lenders.

Besides, the House and Senate are very different institutions and are almost always going to serve up different versions of bills. Reconciling them is why we have legislative conferences. What’s more, Obama only has 58 Democratic votes in the Senate, two shy of a filibuster-proof majority. He needs to pick up a handful of GOP votes to get the bill into conference. The real world choice we face is not between $827 billion and whatever larger figure Krugman believes Washington must spend to rescue the economy, but between roughly $800 billion and a smaller package.

What really seems to bug Krugman, though, is Obama’s postpartisan vision. Instead of wasting time reaching out to Republicans, the president ought to reach for a baseball bat. By strenuous campaigning against GOP obstructionism, Obama could remind voters of why they liked him in the first place, and turn up the heat on his conservative opponents. The problem with that theory is that voters responded powerfully to Obama’s promise to end partisan paralysis in Washington rather than pursue a Democratic version of the Rovian strategy of maximum feasible polarization.

It is galling, of course, to hear Hill Republicans assert that they are simply standing on their “small government” principles. This would be more convincing if the party hadn’t colluded in an orgy of earmarking, borrowing and spending during the Bush years – crowned by a new $8 trillion prescription drug entitlement for seniors.

Perhaps, as Krugman complains, Obama waited too long before countering GOP attempts to conflate stimulus with pork.

But in eschewing the strident partisanship that many on the left pine for, Obama is keeping faith with the people who elected him. He’s also maneuvering the Republicans into a position where they appear as dogmatic, lock-step partisans –and politically impotent to boot, since they can’t block a big stimulus bill from passing. And let’s face it: While the president has tried to foster a new spirit of comity and cooperation, the stimulus plans make very few concessions to GOP demands when you look at the big picture.

So let’s all take a deep breath. If progressives want Obama to succeed, they need to avoid ideological purism and reflexive partisanship, and give their new president the tactical leeway he needs to maneuver around Washington’s formidable obstacles to change.

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What universe are you guys living in? President Obama is floundering. The voters gave him a mandate and substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. However, by making process, i.e., bipartisanship, rather than substance, the lynchpin of his legislative strategy, he has, in effect, given the most reactionary elements in the Republican Party a veto over his legislative agenda. For the past two weeks, Republican legislators and neoconservative spokesmen have dominated the airwaves with virulent, misleading criticism of the stimulus package, and these misrepresentations have largely been allowed to go unchallenged -- with nary a contrary word from the White House -- thus allowing the Republicans to frame the terms of the debate. Obama caved, and caved, and caved again on the stimulus package to placate House Republicans, and got not a single concession -- or a single Republican vote -- in return. In the Senate he accepted even more concessions rather than upset the Republicans or face a filibuster. Now, as Congress moves towards reconciliation, the remains of his economic stimulus appear to be up for grabs. President Obama appears not to understand that he was elected to lead, not follow; to govern, not referee. He has forgotten that he received a mandate to implement new ideas, not recycle old, discredited ones in hopes of achieving an illusory sense of bipartisan comity. Sooner, rather than later, he must come to terms with the fact that he will never, ever, win the respect -- much less the support -- of Republican conservatives, and that real bipartisanship isn't a game of solitaire. Further, he must realize that it's not enough to get elected President -- he has to act like it. If he doesn't, the Republicans will continue to bitch-slap him around, and a year from now, the Democrats will be sitting around the ashes of a defeated presidency asking themselves what happened.

Democrats voted overwhelmingly for this bill in both houses. They provided all but three of the votes for it in the Senate and ALL THE VOTES IT GOT in the House. Are you SURE you want to lecture us for being too partisan? Because we can become "mavericks" too, if ideological and party loyalty are suddenly undesirable.

Dear Mr Marshall

You write "In language that could qualify for a Pulitzer Prize in hyperbole, Krugman claimed that the dastardly centrists would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs..." Evidently your estimate of the effect of the changes on the number of jobs is that they will reduce employment by less than 200,000 (less than hundreds of thousands). Please show your work.

Could you explain to us what quantitative model you used ? Has it been empirically successful in the past ? What is your point estimate of the number of jobs lost due to the changes ? Is it about 100,000 or about 0 or do you think the changes will lead to higher employment ?

I assume that you are a serious person and didn't claim that Krugman's estimate is absurdly large without making an estimate of your own.

If you make quantitative claims without quantitative analysis, then you might try to find an economist who defends the compromise. There are economists who think that Keynesian stimulus has not effect on employment. They consider the Collins Nelson plan terrible and thing that Collins and Nelson should have voted against cloture. There are economists who think that the House plan is better than the compromise voted by the Senate. Is there any economist, hell anyone who bases his or her arguments on the consequences of policy, who agrees with the Nelson-Collins plan ?

Is there anyone who has performed calculations with numbers (as opposed to awarding the Pulitzer for a number) who thinks that the stimulus plan will cause increased employment *and* who thinks that the Nelson-Collins changes won't reduce employment by hundreds of thousands of jobs ?

I ask for information and expect an answer.

Since Mr. Krugman already has a Nobel Prize for economics, he can safely leave the Pulitzer Prize for hyperbole to others. I know one candidate.

So far as I can tell, Mr. Marshall's substantive argument against Paul Krugman's criticism of the "centrist" compromise on the Senate version of the stimulus bill comes down to the following four points:


[S]ome of the education provisions are more questionable...

Does Mr. Marshall care to elaborate as to which notes he would have us remove? Which specific provisions are "questionable" and in what sense are they "questionable"? Is this an argument that the centrists cut out certain provisions that would not have had a stimulative effect, or would have had less of one than the provisions that replaced them in the compromise bill? It's rather difficult to evaluate the criticism without any details.


[T]he housing credit, properly targeted on first-time homebuyers, could help to halt the slide in housing prices.

What work is the clause that begins "properly targeted" doing here? Is Mr. Marshall defending the actually-existing housing credit, as it appears in the centrist compromise bill, or whatever different housing credit that he believes is necessary to help halt the slide in housing prices? More to the point, is halting the slide in housing prices a worthy and/or possible goal? Has Mr. Marshall considered the criticisms of the housing credit put forward by, for example, Dean Baker and Calculated Risk?


In general, Krugman’s outrage seems out of proportion to the actual differences between the House and Senate bills.

Robert Waldmann's comment above says all that needs to be said here.


[T]he Senate plan is bigger ($827 billion vs. the House’s $819 billion). Many economists believe that the plan’s details matter less than its scale...

Is Mr. Marshall seriously claiming that a roughly 1 percent difference in scale cancels out any differences in the composition of the bills? Have "many" or even any economists said that?


The real world choice we face is not between $827 billion and whatever larger figure Krugman believes Washington must spend to rescue the economy, but between roughly $800 billion and a smaller package.

How does Mr. Marshall suppose that this became "the real world choice"? Was it forordained? Divinely inspired? Did it not, in fact, become "the real world choice" precisely because the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress both neglected to open the debate at a higher number?

Many thanks to ducdebrabant, RobertWaldmann and Amileoj for saving me much typing.

All in all, this is a very difficult thing to shepherd through an surprisingly ignorant an often foolish Congress, full of silly partisan ideologues. Given that, Obama has done good job. I think his holding his fire until this week was consciously tactical, and not a mistake. Let's see what the conference report holds, as this is where Obama's heft (and his overall political plan) will make itself known.

Krugman is not calling for partisanship for partisanship's sake. He is attempting to analyse the effects the house plan and the senate plan would have on the economy. He is an economist you know. He is not alone in his view that dollar for dollar spending provides more stimulus than tax cuts, note at his blog he links to CAP analysis of the implications of the CBO estimates of multipliers for the difference in employment between the two plans.

I have asked for the quantitative analysis which supports the claim that Krugman's claim "that the dastardly centrists would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs" is worthy of a Pulitzer prize in hyperbole. The assertion is that the difference in employment under the two plans is far far less than 200,000. Such a claim should be based on a quantitative analysis. Where did Mr Marshall get his multipliers ? Did he estimate them himself ? Where did he get his Okun's law coefficient ? What is his Okun's law coefficient ?

I might add that I also object to three other assertions "Many economists believe that the plan’s details matter less than its scale, because they believe what’s essential now is to boost the confidence and “animal spirits” of U.S. consumers, businesses and lenders." [citation needed] How many ? What are their names ? I can't think of one. An assertion about economists should be supported by a link to a list of economists. There is no word limit on the web. There is no excuse for assertions of fact not supported by specific evidence.

Also "But some of the education provisions are more questionable and the housing credit, properly targeted on first-time homebuyers, could help to halt the slide in housing prices." I note that Marshall absolutely disagrees with Obama on this one, but, much more to the point, economists such as Robert Shiller (worlds number one expert on housing prices I'd say) believe that the slide in housing prices can't be stopped but only slowed. http://tinyurl.com/cvuwte Marshall seems to think he is more of an expert on housing prices than Shiller. What is the basis of his view that Shiller is wrong ?

Finally "What really seems to bug Krugman, though, is Obama’s postpartisan vision." I mean come on. Is Marshall claiming he can read Krugman's mind ? It should be simply off limits to comment on what someone guesses about someone else's emotions. I might add that, for what it's worth, it seems odd to me to guess that Krugman's stated views on economics are based on his views on parties. I mean he is an economist. He was advocating spending not just tax cuts long before the House or the Senate (or the administration) took a position. However, the main point is that what it's worth is nothing. I can't read Krugman's mind and I don't try. I respond to his arguments not to my hypotheses about his psyche.

Bipartisanship is very nice, but if the price is hundreds of thousands of jobs, maybe a bit of partisanship is in order. Notably Obama has taken a strong public stand in favor of the house approach. Last I heard, the conference committee was dropping Senate proposals (house buying credit) and restoring House proposals (building and repairing schools).

Notably the defence of Obama seems a bit out of date, as Marshall is defending what Obama was doing a week ago and, therefore, criticizing what he is doing now.

By the way, have you noticed the amazing influence that the CAP has on the debate ? Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate, dropped his rough analysis (600,000 jobs difference) in favor of theirs and the head of CAP was joint leader of the transition and the Economist calls one of their bloggers scary smart.

Not to be nasty but, rather, to be sophomoric, how is the progressive policy institute doing in comparison ? You know Krugman only found out about Marshall's last contribution to the debate on Krugman by following a link from angrybear.blogspot.com. Now I am sure that the PPI and www.thedemocraticstrategist.org is much much more influential than agrybear. I'm sure commenters here (or the TDS staff) can point me to the proof supporting my guess.

The "real world" point is that a few centrists will determine what gets through; and that these centrists arrive at their vote by divining what a centrist stance might be - not by analysing the issues.

Obama, as Krugman suggests, should have started with an ambit claim that, after allowance for ritual arbitrary centrist dilution, would have resulted in something closer to what this emergency calls for.

It lifts my spirits whenever Robert Waldmann makes comments on economic policy issues. While I typically don't agree with his conclusions, I always admire the questions he asks. Too often comment strings descend into comparisons of genital size rather than discussions of empirical data and conclusions that they may support. Robert's comments do much to inhibit this tendency.

So if I understand this correctly, the people who supported Obama because he was far too progressive to do this sort of thing were wrong for the right reason, and the people who object to the fact that it's happening anyway are shrill?

Including Paul Krugman?

I realize nobody (well, except a few folks who were wrong for the right reason) ever promised me a rose garden in return for my vote, but, you know, damn.

This is freeper stuff, and it's how Bush ended up so out of touch that he lost the nation for his party. Srsly. Stop it.

Thanks rpj. You made my day :-).

Now of course there are empirical data on genital size. Given the warning "Individuals posting rude or otherwise inappropriate material will lose their access to the discussion." I won't go into detail.

I'll just note that, in general, people (maybe not including me) like to shift the discussion to issues where they are above average -- if you get my drift.

Do you know what the Republicans were doing while Obama was reaching out for bipartisan solutions? They were spreading lies via the right wing media that the stimulus plan contained a provision that would allow bureaucrats to overturn life saving decisions by doctors. Senior citizens were threatened with death.

How can Obama be bipartisan when the GOP plays that way? The GOP is focused only with destroying Obama and does not care one bit what happens to the country. Except for a few remaining moderates, they don't plan to compromise on anything. While Obama plays diplomat, the GOP plays AK47s.

The inside the beltway types told us to ignore Republican shenanigans for years and it led to consistent election losses. Since the Internet revolution, the Democratic rank and file demands swift and forceful responses. We've won two elections since.

I'd love to see America return to an all inclusive honest debate about how we should proceed. But we aren't going to get that until the GOP gets a scalding bath that washes their crud out.

Obama should start calling the GOP out when they spread lies like the hoax about doctors not being able to give life saving treatments. Obama made a brilliant move when he told Republicans to choose between Limbaugh and being part of solutions. Half the rank and file GOP got behind Obama initially and many of them still are. The right wing extremists, Limbaugh especially, retook control. The only way to ever get to compromise is to separate the moderate sensible Republicans from right wing extremist influence.

Reach for the bat before right wing lies destroy Obama.

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