Tuesday, January 26, 2010


If this is Barack Obama's send-for-Dick-Morris moment, his rightward move apparently comes with as many asterisks as his progressivism. I'm not sure I mean that as criticism -- in a way, it gives me (faint) hope.

I understand the despair at the spending freeze -- but I read the analysis written by The New Republic's Noam Scheiber in December, when the idea first surfaced, and it gives me pause:

... there is a logic to Orszag's gambit, which runs roughly as follows: It's almost certain that Congress will pass, and the president will sign, a jobs bill early next year, probably in the neighborhood of $100 billion to $200 billion. Given that, and given the difficulty of doing anything about the long-term deficit next year, the administration needs some signal to U.S. bondholders that it takes the deficit seriously. Just not so seriously that it undercuts the extra stimulus.

The Orszag approach just might accomplish that. Given the amount of domestic discretionary spending in the federal budget--about $700 billion this fiscal year--we’re talking about cuts of, at most, several tens of billions of dollars if Orszag holds the line on spending (and probably less once Congress weighs in). Which means the cuts wouldn't come close to offsetting the likely stimulus. But they just might buy some credibility in the bond market, which could defer the day when the real deficit cutting has to start.

And then I read what Jared Bernstein writes at whitehouse.gov:

...During the campaign, you may recall that John McCain touted ... the hatchet approach of an across-the-board freeze.

The President was critical of that approach then, and we would be critical of it now. It's not what we're proposing. To the contrary, the entire theory of the President's proposed freeze is to dial up the stuff that will support job growth and innovation while dialing down the stuff that doesn't. Under our plan, some discretionary spending will go up; some will go down. That's a big difference from a hatchet.

Take, for example, the policies we announced yesterday -- a significant expansion (a 20% increase) in a program that provides services for seniors, like respite care and in-home services; a program to limit student loan repayments to 10 percent of income (after living expenses); an expansion of two tax credits, one for child care and another for retirement savings.

How can we expand these programs in the context of a freeze? By making sure that the freeze either holds steady or increases those parts of the discretionary budget that support jobs and income security for folks who need them, while whacking the wasteful subsidies that support lobbyists and special interests....

No, I don't have much confidence that Obama and Democrats can calibrate this with exquisite care so that only bad stuff gets cut. But I'm starting to think that this is less a Sister Souljah moment than an act of bamboozlement -- sincere bamboozlement.

What I mean is that Obama really is a guy who believes some progressive stuff and some right-wing stuff and some right-centrist and left-centrist stuff, and now he's using that sincere tendency toward bet-hedging in a tactical, cynical way to throw right-wingers (or at least swing voters who've been finding right-wing ideas increasingly persuasive) off stride. No, it's not what I want -- but I think the mix is going to be a lot more politically effective than most lefties think.

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