>> Monday, December 14, 2009
Matt Taibbi's polemic article about the selection of economic advisors and the general economic policy that has come about has spawned a large debate in the blogosphere. The core of the attacks against Taibi are not the factual charges which seem to be largely a distraction. Instead the substantive critique is that the executive branch advisors arent the problem and that removing them and replacing them with the most progressive ones you could find wouldnt change a thing. This critique is based on the legislature central view of policy. Essentially these critics of Taibi are saying that until lieberman, nelson, bayh are gone there simply cant be better, more progressive policy.
Chief among the substantive critics is Ezra Klein.
Simple as it may be, it manages to be false both conceptually and specifically. The financial system made Michael Froman rich, and Rubin, too, but neither is working on financial regulation. You can argue that Larry Summers skimmed a few million off the top, but he's spent a lot of time in academia and government for someone so concerned with money. But Orszag? Furman? Geithner? Christina Romer? They may represent intellectual capture, but that's not the same thing as what Taibbi is implying.
Worse than being unfair, though, it actively misses the point. What unites not only Obama's economic team, but his whole White House, is not its emphasis on rich people. It's the emphasis on people accustomed to dealing with Congress. You've got a former Treasury secretary, CBO director, DCCC chairman, chief of staff to the Senate majority leader, chief of staff to the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and on it goes. It's rather difficult to say what these people do and don't believe, as their whole world is finding 218 in the House and 60 in the Senate, and every word, action and policy brief is squarely aimed at that goal.
That leaves two questions worth asking about them: First, are they more or less liberal than the 218th most liberal congressman and the 60th most liberal senator? Second, are they good at their jobs? That is to say, are they good at bringing 218 congressmen and 60 senators into line behind reasonably good policy?
Ezra's critique is picked up by Yglesias. Klein's point is clear. Policy and law is made by congress. Until Congress is more progressive more progressive legislation will not pass. The blame heaped upon Obama is misplaced according to Klein.
To some extent though Klein and Taibbi are talking past each other. Taibbi is blasting Obama because the people he chooses represent the type of policy that will not only be portrayed as feasible but also as desirable. These people tell Obama not only what the most likely alternative is but also what the best and worst alternatives are. Any negotiation begins with these in mind. Formulating a strategy for negotiation with congress involves formulating an opening position based on the most desirable outcome and the most likely. By picking the people he does the President is helping to decide where he starts and where he wants to go. That doesnt involve congress at all.
Most people criticizing Obama take the route Taibi does. He starts from the wrong position with the wrong end goal in mind. That would be Obama's fault. But what about Klein's assertion that policy will only be as good as Lieberman et al will allow?
This is true. As long as the massive procedural hurdles of the senate remain in place those people matter. a lot. The criticism of obama has been that he doesnt play the game with these people properly. their arent any sticks. Ezra would say that the sticks dont exist except maybe for lieberman who has a nice chairmanship that might get accidentally dead. shame if that were to happen. Obama has tended to try very hard to work with and massage congress people. he seems to be very nice to them, just as he is nice to the bankers. he urges them to make credit freer. thats nice. Obama could certainly be harsher and more demanding in his rhetoric or proposals. that risks a greater loss but also greater gain.
Ultimately Obama is only in control of how he chooses to try and coerce/convince nelson, bayh, and crew to go along with his policies. SO far he hasnt really called them out or really attacked their intransigence. He probably doesnt believe that this will work. The point is that he does not try. Its not that he hasnt succeeded, failing would suck but the biggest problem is that we havent tried according to most people unhappy with the president. Ezra is right that congress is ultimately in control of what gets passed but Taibbi is also correct that Obama's strategy doesnt seem to be the most effective.