Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Obama the Centrist

BERKELEY – Despite the frequent cries of American Republicans that Barack Obama is trying to bring European-style socialism to the United States, it is now very clear that the US president wishes to govern from one place and one place only: the center.

In fighting the recession, Obama decided early on that he would push for a fiscal stimulus program about half the size of what his Democratic economic advisers recommended, and he decided to count that as a total victory rather than press for expanding half a loaf into the full amount.

Obama has been so committed to that cautious policy that even now, with the unemployment rate kissing 10%, he will not grab for the low-hanging fruit and call for an additional $200 billion of federal aid to the states over the next three years in order to prevent further layoffs of teachers. Rather than stemming further erosion of the national commitment to educate the next generation, Obama has shifted his focus to the long-term goal of balancing the budget – even while the macroeconomic storm is still raging.

And, in order to move forward on long-term budget balance, Obama has appointed a fiscal arsonist, Republican ex-Senator Alan Simpson, as one of his fire chiefs – one of the two co-chairs of his deficit reduction commission. Simpson never met an unfunded tax cut proposed by a Republican president that he would vote against, and he never met a balanced deficit-reduction program proposed by a Democratic president that he would support. Partisans whose commitment to deficit reduction vanishes whenever political expedience dictates simply do not belong running bipartisan deficit-reduction commissions.

Likewise, in dealing with the financial sector’s distress, Obama has acquiesced in the Bush-era policy of bailouts for banks without demanding anything of them in return – no nationalizations and no imposition of the second half of Walter Bagehot’s rule that aid be given to banks in a crisis only on the harsh terms of a “penalty rate.” Obama has thus positioned himself to the right not only of Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Johnson, and Paul Krugman, but also of his advisers Paul Volcker and Larry Summers.

On environmental policy, Obama has pressed not for a carbon tax, but for a cap-and-trade system that, for the first generation, pays the polluter. If you were a major emitter in the past, then for the next generation you are given a property right to very valuable emissions permits whose worth will only rise over time.

On anti-discrimination efforts, the repeal of the US military’s “don’t ask, don't tell” policy toward gay soldiers is on an extremely slow track – if, that is, it is hooked up to an engine at all.

On policy towards the rule of law, the closure of the mistake that is Guantánamo Bay is on a similarly slow track. Moreover, Obama has joined George W. Bush in claiming executive powers that rival those claimed by Charles II of Britain in the seventeenth century.

On healthcare reform, Obama’s proudest moment, his achievement is...drum roll...a scheme that almost precisely mimics the reform that Mitt Romney, a Republican who sought the presidency in 2008, brought to the state of Massachusetts. The reform’s centerpiece is a requirement imposed by the government that people choose responsibly and provide themselves with insurance – albeit with the government willing to subsidize the poor and strengthen the bargaining power of the weak.

In all of these cases, Obama is ruling, or trying to rule, by taking positions that are at the technocratic good-government center, and then taking two steps to the right – sacrificing some important policy goals – in the hope of attracting Republican votes and thereby demonstrating his commitment to bipartisanship. On all of these policies – anti-recession, banking, fiscal, environmental, anti-discrimination, rule of law, healthcare – you could close your eyes and convince yourself that, at least as far as the substance is concerned, Obama is in fact a moderate Republican named George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Colin Powell.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My complaints about Obama are not that he is too bipartisan or too centrist. I am at bottom a weak-tea Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller social democrat – that is, with a small “s” and a small “d.” My complaints are that he is not technocratic enough, that he is pursuing the chimera of “bipartisanship” too far, and that, as a result, many of his policies will not work well, or at all.

I understand that politics is the art of the possible, and that good-government technocracy is limited to the attainable. But it would be good if Obama remembered that we dwell not in the Republic of Plato, but in the Roman sewer of Romulus.

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