Monday, June 25, 2012

The State of Civic Discourse

On Saturday, my son posted the following photo on his Facebook page and I actually reposted it.

A long time friend from college immediately responded with "Carter was bad but not even close to the abject failure of GWB. If anything, Obama should have been far more forceful in pointing out the abyss he was handed."

What amuses me about the response is that I think it misses the point of the shot.   Ronald Reagan came into the Presidency when interest rates were approaching 20%  unemployment was around 10%, and inflation was out of control.   One could argue (although I never would) that some of this was not the fault of the prior administration.  But Reagan, after the campaign, went about the business of being President.  He proposed a series of changes in federal fiscal policy including significant changes in the tax code.   He also proposed a fairly significant increase in defense spending.  Some commentators then and now argue that he raised the deficit to unacceptable levels.   But the point is he took the job of president seriously.

The current president was swept in on a wave of concern about the prior one.   Whether you agreed with his policies or not, and I did not agree with many of his ideas, during Bush's tenure we went through a major meltdown in the financial markets.   Comparisons to the last years of the Carter Administration are instructive.   Compared to 1980 interest rates were artificially being held down, based on a very accommodative monetary policy.   Unemployment was in the same range as it was in the end of the Carter Administration.   Inflation, at least the data that most people rely on, was not a problem, at least for now.   But the deficit was growing.  Not as fast as the first couple of years of Obama but the increases were pretty big.

Had I been elected (God Forbid!) I would have concentrated on coming up with a solution to the problem(s) facing our economy.   In the President's view, part of that would be enacting the stimulus bill.  There are plenty of arguments against Obama's stimulus (and the data seems to be accumulating that the most important result of all that dough being spent was a tremendous increase in the deficit and the accumulated debt of the US).   But that was a one trick pony.   Instead the President concentrated on getting the Affordable Care Act - without any significant effort to involve the opposition.   In 1980-81 the Reagan team worked hard to identify democrats who could be broken off from the majority.  Remember that Reagan faced a much less accommodating Congress than Obama in his first two years.
Dodd-Frank then tried to figure out how to improve the situation on financial regulation.  But one could argue that the ACA fight diverted him from the more important question.   AND at the same time he spent precious little time trying to get anyone on the other side to join him.   The vote in 2010 was a reflection about how many Americans felt about that set of choices.

He also argued that all of his problems came from W.   The point of the Facebook post was that Reagan did not bother assigning blame for his predicament.   He was after all one who sought the job as it was.
Leaders lead.   They don't spend a lot of time trying to explain why their policies were not as successful as they wanted them to be.  They also don't spend a lot of time whining about the hard hand they were dealt.   The point is, this President, whined a lot.

In 1980 there was a lot of effort by the President's supporters to do two things that this President has not not, besides the complaints about the horrible mess he was left in (which Reagan did not do).   First, he looked for ways to build coalitions of people who did not agree with him on a lot of his policies.   So he courted democratic members of congress who might support some or all of the issues.   Second, he got a lot of scholarly support for his positions and tried hard to promote those ideas in a lot of venues - many of which were not sympathetic to his goals.

Nobody said being President is an easy job.   Getting GOP members to cooperate may be tougher than it was in the first couple of years of the Reagan presidency.   But had the President worked a bit harder at that task and a bit less time on detailing the tough hand he had been dealt, he, perhaps, would have been more successful.

I am a skeptic about the current brand of politicians who want to see if they can spin events.   How about actually trying to build consensus?

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