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Defending Obama Against Krugman

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Paul Krugman has been criticizing Barack Obama since early in the primary season, and their shadow-boxing is one of the most interesting debates in American politics.

Today's Krugman column provides an opportunity to sum it up. This is the key paragraph:

In retrospect, the roots of current Democratic despond go all the way back to the way Mr. Obama ran for president. Again and again, he defined America's problem as one of process, not substance--we were in trouble not because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas, but because partisan divisions and politics as usual had prevented men and women of good will from coming together to solve our problems. And he promised to transcend those partisan divisions.

During the campaign, Krugman wanted Obama to capitalize on the unpopularity of George W. Bush to make a sweeping and persuasive case to the American people: things had gone badly because of conservative ideas; liberal ideas were better. It was deeply frustrating to Krugman, Sean Wilentz, and many others (including some of my friends) that Barack Obama wouldn't say that forcefully and relentlessly. He did say much of it, but mixed with other themes that had no resonance for Paul Krugman. What Krugman heard was a call for "bipartisanship," which seemed exactly the opposite of what we needed. Bipartisanship meant blurring the distinctions between liberals and "people with the wrong ideas" and signaling an excessive willingness to compromise.

After the election, Krugman argues, Barack Obama should have explained and defended liberal policies, whether or not they could get through Congress. Above all, he should have "fought" for an "economic plan commensurate with the scale of the crisis." Krugman doesn't explain what "fighting" means for a president, but perhaps it means vigorously debating one's opponents in public forums. If, despite Obama's most vigorous ideological arguments, a huge stimulus package failed in Congress, the "people with the wrong ideas" would have to take the blame.

Instead, Krugman believes, the president compromised on his liberalism, and therefore Americans did not understand their options. Communication is everything for Krugman. From today's column: "What Mr. Obama should have said... Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans... There were no catchy slogans, no clear statements of principle... " The president "has the bully pulpit."

I don't believe that bipartisanship was the distinctive message of the Obama campaign; in fact, the candidate paid no more than the usual and customary homage to it. But Obama did reject the diagnosis that we were simply "in trouble... because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas." He didn't think that he could explain or argue the American people into a different political philosophy, one in which our major troubles stemmed from conservative ideas and the solutions lay in a more activist government. Obama wanted a more activist government and has taken the largest step in that direction since 1974 with the health care bill. But he didn't believe that the way to get there was to conduct a debate on ideology. He did think, contra Krugman, that the main problem was the process and not the misguided people in office.

After all, the number of "people with the wrong ideas" (as defined by Krugman) is very large. All Republican elected officials, plus the majority of American voters who supported that party in several recent elections, have the wrong ideas, from Krugman's perspective. So do at least one third of elected Democrats and a large proportion of Democratic voters. So do all the leaders of major foreign economies, who are asking Obama to lower deficits and not spend. So do many impressive economists. I personally find Krugman's economics quite persuasive, but the task of explanation and persuasion is much harder than he realizes.

People begin with a very deep distrust of the federal government. Because of that distrust, just six percent of Americans believed that the $787 billion stimulus package had created even one job a full year after it passed Congress. I suppose Krugman would say that the stimulus was too small to be noticeable. But the kind of stimulus he wanted was certainly too big to pass Congress, so Obama could only have won the debate, not the policies he needed. In any case, if you live in a country where 94% of people believe that almost one trillion dollars of their money bought no jobs, you have a deeper problem than being "governed by people with the wrong ideas." You need to diagnose why most people are so deeply distrustful and skeptical.

One reason is a natural and healthy distrust of a large and distant federal government. No other diverse, continental-sized country has a central government that has addressed national problems and won broad popular support. The European democracies are far smaller; Russia, India, and China have worse governance problems than we do. Governing from Washington is a tough task.

A second reason is poor results. We devote large amounts of our income to taxes, but because of military spending, wasteful health spending, and misconceived programs like the Farm Bill and the mortgage income deduction, we don't get very good value for our money.

A third reason is distaste for political leaders who appear to squabble and score points rather than cooperate to solve our problems. Krugman wants Democrats to pin the blame for bad policy and obstructionism on Republicans. But Americans hear the counter-charges as well as the charges and decide that they don't want to entrust large amounts of their money to any of these people.

A fourth reason is exclusion from public life. For a generation, we have been replacing democratic participation in public institutions (like schools) with technocratic governance: with efficiency measures, accountability systems, and other tools that ordinary people cannot control.

A fifth reason is "the Big Sort"--our mass migration to enclaves (whether neighborhoods, news sources, or organizations and associations) where we only encounter others who agree with us. The Big Sort lowers trust in government because individuals believe that most other people agree with them, yet the government acts contrary to their values. They underestimate the degree to which we actually disagree with one other. Our opponents, meanwhile, become shadowy enemies motivated by terrible values, instead of flesh-and-blood neighbors with different life experiences.

A sixth reason is the collapse of powerful intermediary organizations, associations with grassroots chapters and national lobbies that once connected people to the policy process. Those associations included fraternal and ethnic clubs, unions, and churches (of which only the evangelical conservative ones remain strong). They gave people a feeling of ownership by multiplying their power.

And a final reason is a terrible process. As long as elections are privately funded, districts are gerrymandered, and legislative procedures are rigged, it doesn't matter who makes what argument or what the people believe who govern us. Policy will be determined by power.

Obama explicitly understood these points. He concluded that the problem was the process. Debate wouldn't solve anything, but we needed to build new relationships--relationships of trust between citizens and the government and among diverse citizens. Krugman scoffs at the idea of "men and women of good will... coming together to solve our problems." That is indeed too much to expect of Congress, but it happens regularly in civil society. At the national level, politicians can at least display more of the civility that Americans expect of fellow citizens. (Civility, by the way, is not the same as bipartisanship.)

I think Obama's diagnosis and promise were correct. That doesn't mean that the execution has been satisfactory. There have been no new policies that permit or encourage broad public participation. There have been no serious changes in the rules and processes of Washington. The administration has tried to negotiate its way to satisfactory policies and explain their merits to the American people, instead of changing the system itself. In that sense, they have been doing what Krugman recommends, but with less economic ambition and impact. We need the kind of transformational presidency that Barack Obama promised and that Paul Krugman considered a mistake.