President Obama: It’s Not Just The Words!

By Marshall Auerback

The post-mortems following the Massachusetts Senate by-election are coming in fast and furiously, but by far the most instructive remarks come from the President himself. He clearly doesn’t get it.

A majority of Obama voters who switched to Brown said that “Democratic policies were doing more to help Wall Street than Main Street.” A full 95 percent said the economy was important or very important when it came to deciding their vote. Surprise, surprise, policies do matter.

But what was the President’s reaction? ABC News reported, “President Obama said today that he feels he lost a direct connection to the American people in his first year in office because he focused too heavily on policy-making.”

“If there’s one thing that I regret this year is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” Obama told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview at the White House.

The arrogance and presumption of the statement is remarkable. Mr. President, the American people have core values, and they don’t encompass political cronyism and tolerance of fraud and corruption. And they go beyond mere reminders that “change takes time”.

Having persuaded himself that his powers of oratory can solve any problem (even minus the teleprompter?), the President patronizingly suggests that his “change” policies were not the problem, but that he failed in the presentation of them. It’s more likely that people were profoundly upset that with the “stuff” that the President and Congress were getting done, and his failure adequately to address the immediate crises that he faced in his first year in office.

When Obama continued the Bush/Paulson moves on the bank bailouts, that was the beginning of the end of his “change” Presidency. Health care was simply the confirmation as large proportion of his base was prepared to cut him slack waiting to see what he would do with the issue. In the end, we got a terrible bill, and no amount of salesmanship or nice speeches will change the substance. It does not even deliver on the promise that got most people prepared to hold their collective noses and vote for it, that of eliminating the practice of rescinding policies on the basis of “pre-existing condition”. Read the bill.  As Yves Smith has highlighted, it allows an out for fraud. Guess what? Not telling your insurer of a preexisting condition, EVEN ONE YOU DID NOT KNOW ABOUT, is fraud! Unbeknownst to most, fraud is the means under current law that insurers deny coverage. The bill preserves the status quo here. A nursing organization with 150,000 members opposed the bill for this very reason.
We have major problems in this country: rising unemployment, a stagnating economy, overly expensive health care and a large group of uninsured, which adds to the costs of the latter. How is further enriching insurers and Big Pharma (which the bill does) going to solve the cost problem? Similarly, how has throwing ample financial subsidies at Wall Street, helped the average citizen on Main Street?

The President expended so much political capital and goodwill placating the likes of Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. Now that they’ve got their government checks, they can do whatever they like and continue to poison the polity. The health insurance and pharmaceutical industries have followed the playbook, and used the political process the same way.

I am sure there are some people angered by too much government spending (aka, “socialism”) and others who are genuinely peeved that Obama is not spending enough. But more than that, there remains a profound sense of anger, mixed with helplessness amongst most people. The only means by which these people can manifest this anger (without resorting to riots and burning buildings) is via the ballot box. They will likely continue to take it out on people perceived to be the “ins”, the main feeders at the trough, versus the “outs”, who have got nothing, but the promise of a lot more economic misery. Massachusetts was the first significant political manifestation of this trend, and if his immediate comments are anything to go by, I doubt Obama will interpret the election result correctly, since his faux populism and reliance on “speaking directly to the American people” merely shows how contrived his Administration has become.

President Obama is providing increasingly disturbing parallels with one of Robert Redford’s memorable characters, Bill McKay, from “The Candidate”. If you recall how that movie ended, McKay escapes the victory party and pulls Lucas into a room while throngs of journalists clamor outside. McKay then asks his political spin doctor, Marvin Lucas, who engineered the victory: “Marvin … What do we do now?” The media throng arrives to drag them out at that moment and McKay never receives an answer. Today’s electorate is waiting for an answer from the President which encapsulates something beyond a mere “change” slogan. Judging from the policies, they’ve been getting, they aren’t happy with the answers.

2 responses to “President Obama: It’s Not Just The Words!

  1. I am undeniably disappointed in Obama, though I recognize that he has had some very difficult stuff to deal with.At the time I voted for him, I was a deficit hawk and pretty neo-liberal in outlook. Initially I was even highly skeptical of the stimulus! After Obama was elected, I realized that as an ordinary citizen, I did not understand economics at all. So I have been trying to actually learn about it, and read Keynes, Friedman (for balance, I guess), and Minsky, along with every economics blog I could find (left, right, and center). The result (so far) is that I end up going through an "everything you know is wrong" revelation with MMT. The tipping point for me was Warren Mosler asking where the points come from on a scoreboard and saying that when you pay taxes, the government destroys your money, because it does not need it to spend, via your "Should America Kowtow to China?" post. Then it just hit me like a ton of bricks – everything you know about macroeconomics is wrong. It's hard to sufficiently emphasize how hard I was suddenly hit by it. So at least from my perspective, much of the disappointment arises from me actually changing my opinions, less from disappointment in him.Another, larger, better targeted fiscal stimulus is needed. But with his current economic advisers, not to mention the political mood, there is no way that will actually happen. People don't understand why it is needed because people do not understand the macro-economy. People are scared by the banal gold-standard conventional wisdom that "our children will have to re-pay the national debt," and that "the government is going to go bankrupt." As long as (normal but reasonably educated) people think that way, it would be suicide for any politician to actually do what is needed to fix the economy, even if that politician actually understood why it was necessary, which of course none of them do.Well, at least Obama's better than McCain. We would probably have lunacy like a spending freeze with him in charge.

  2. I believe that the principle problem the president has lies in failure to understand how the monetary system and economy based on it operate. When President Obama says that he was too busy focusing on policy-making, he means too busy listening to economic advisors that have a flawed macro model, so the policy prescriptions were inadequate to address the problems at hand. The president put too much attention on Wall Street because his advisors are telling him that banking is essential to the health of economy in that it in conjunction with the Fed manage the supply of money.According to MMT, this is only a small part of the story and completely misses the ability of the sovereign government to use fiscal policy to manage non-government net financial assets through spending and taxation.As a result, the bankers have been able to hold the country hostage, effectively undermining the credibility of the president as national leader. The public is outraged about this, but like, the president and his advisors, they don't really know that this is unnecessary if the government wakes up to its capacity (and responsibility) as monopoly currency issuer.The crisis could have been avoided by supplying enough NFA to avoid the astronomical debt levels leading up to the crisis and by supplying enough now to close the output gap by raising nominal AD.While I agree that McCain would have been much worse because he would have tightened, I suspect that the president is going to feel increasingly pressured to tighten and we will see another 1937 in his (probably only) term. He and his people just don't seem to get it.