In the last week or two, an eccentric debate has been dividing Democratic Party pols and commentators in Washington: In 2011, should President Obama strive to be more like Harry Truman in 1947 or Bill Clinton in 1995?
Apparently, they have given up on FDR or Abe Lincoln as plausible role models for the president. They should be careful. The way the economy seems to be going, a year from now, they could be down to deciding between Carter and Hoover as role models.
The point of this debate is that in 1947, Truman, after a crushing midterm election against the Democrats in 1946, was defiant, moved to his left and nonetheless won an unlikely re-election in 1948. (Truman opposed Republican tax cuts and removal of price controls, he vetoed the union-weakening Taft-Hartley Act and was overridden, he proposed national health insurance and moved aggressively on civil rights.)
Bill Clinton, of course, is famous for triangulating between the Republicans and the Democrats, moving to the center/right, signing the Republican welfare reform bill (which he had twice vetoed before the election of 1994, when the GOP thumpingly took back the House and Senate), agreed to the Republican-proposed balanced budget (which he steadfastly opposed before the election), proclaimed that the era of big government was over and, in his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, bragged about signing into law 14 items that had been in the Republican "Contract with America."
But 2011 is not 1947 or 1995. The primary challenge for the president (and the Congress) today is not to be seen to get one up on the other party -- nor is it to be seen to support their base at the ideological barricades. It is to restore the immediate economy to reasonable health, bring down unemployment rates below 7 percent (preferably below 5 percent), see the housing market begin to recover and induce business to voluntarily start investing some of its $2-3 trillion it is fearful to invest in the current market.
If none or little of that happens in the next two years, the voters may unleash their justified wrath at both parties' politicians -- from the president and the speaker on down.
So, from the president's perspective, he should have a high value in getting his policy right and implementing as much as he can by pressuring the GOP to pass it. But what is his economic policy?
Recently, the word has been floating around Washington that the president secretly would like to see the full Bush tax cut extended because he thinks raising taxes in a recession may be counterproductive. From a free marketer's point of view, that is a good development. But what good will keeping taxes lower do if the administration otherwise is hostile to business and free markets?
For instance, the president just announced a seven-year ban on offshore drilling -- thus killing hundreds of thousands of jobs and multibillions of new salaries and profits. It also forces us to spend yet more money in the Middle East instead of here in America. Is that supposed to encourage business to up its investment during the current administration's government?
The White House has let it be known -- since the election -- that what they can't pass of cap and trade through Congress, they would consider trying to bring online through their EPA's regulatory process. Does the threat of higher taxes on energy coming into being in the dark of the regulatory night (without even a chance for a business to protect itself by gaining the support of the elected House or Senate), does that let loose the animal spirits of business to start investing in jobs and economic activity?
Does the president's stout rhetorical argument these last weeks that anyone making over $250,000 is rich and can easily absorb a big tax increase encourage an investor to believe the president has any idea what economic reality is like?
I have the feeling that even if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to extend for two years, if the economy does not come bouncing back, this White House will ask, "What more do the businessmen want? We gave them their darn Bush tax break; they owe us their big investment."
Tax cuts -- or in this instance, no tax increases -- are vitally useful in creating an economic environment in which investors, and big- and small-businesspeople feel safe to invest again. But low taxes are not sufficient. When they come at the same time that the White House continues to trumpet threatening class warfare sounds, I fear this dreary economy will continue to flounder.
The president needs to think very hard. If he believes the best bet for the economy (and his re-election) is a full Reaganite embrace of free markets and low taxes, then he should switch comprehensively to such policies and rhetoric. He will get GOP support and such policies will become law.
If he still believes in his liberal class war policies, then he might as well do what his left wants him to: attack, attack, attack the GOP and hope the economy gets better by intervention of providence or some other miraculous method.