Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Letter to Progressive Pundits

The following is a letter I wrote today, as a comment on Paul Krugman's blog (not sure if it passed moderation - might have been too long), expressing my frustration with recent progressive negativity about Obama - despite agreeing with a few of their points (Geithner and Summers, in particular).


Dr. Krugman,

Full disclosure to begin with - I am a wholehearted progressive, with a passion for political economy, who reads your column, as well as others (Dean Baker, occasionally Dani Rodrik and Simon Johnson) regularly.

Sometimes I wonder if we progressives, just as with hard-right conservatives, are too quick to judge moves on the surface without really analyzing them. While it is true that Obama hasn't done much to radically change the narrative, to book him as JUST a centrist seems a little harsh. To use the current example, the anti-deficit plans that have come out of the White House seem aimed at trimming excesses that don't benefit current programs or goals (e.g canning the F-22). The current deficit-reduction bill seems to be one of these, spun in a "fiscal responsibility" manner. Trimming $25 billion a year over the next decade (pocket change for the US Gov) from non-critical programs (both security and major entitlement programs are exempt) can help politically - but it can also free up some marginal cash for potentially high-multiplier initiatives (e.g. high-speed rail, other energy initiatives). It certainly isn't worth railing against, as if we were talking about revisiting FDR in 1936.

Obama is not a radical game-changer, but the ONLY candidate with the potential for that in the primaries was John Edwards. So what is he then? He's a consensus-builder - but one with an eye towards long-term goals. That means an emphasis on smart industrial policy initiatives which lead the market. This can be very beneficial - in particular when dealing with green energy, and attempting to rebuild the manufacturing sector of the US (or at least the non-financial sectors, generally). He is much more in favor of incentives to innovation, rather than restrictions on behavior, save in blatantly obvious areas (e.g. pre-existing conditions).

Lastly, why did we expect him to change the narrative overnight? For that matter, would a more polarizing figure (even one with excellent grassroots mobilization) be able to get anything done in Washington - when you yourself have pointed to the Blue Dogs as a major roadblock to reform? Obama may not have pushed as hard in certain places, but he hasn't been lying down on the job, either. We've gotten major credit-card reform, phased withdrawal from Iraq on a timetable, progress towards closing Gitmo, and a 2-year stimulus package worth 3% of GDP per year. Yes, we boosted troops in Afghanistan - but Obama was very clear about doing that during the election (and their is a case to be made for it, unlike Iraq). Yes, the stimulus was too small, but did we expect the American people to suddenly become educated Keynsians overnight? "Trillion" is still a number most people have trouble comprehending - my political economy students included.

Perhaps our strategy is wrong. We need to remember that, for all that grassroots support elected Obama, progressives - by definition - are not the mainstream of society. This means we need to take the longer view at times. Rather than automatically saying "this isn't enough, it isn't why we elected you," we should actively promote Obama initiatives that broadly match up with our ideals (admittedly, you have been doing this on Health Care). Constant criticism from left-wing pundits does not help Obama's political capital - and, Wall Street reform excluded (except the potential Voelcker rule) - Obama's agenda has been, broadly speaking, a progressive one.