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Good and Bad Arguments About Obama and the Economy

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One the one hand, although I understand his point I can’t go along Mike Konczal’s quasi-defense of Drew Westen. Ignoring Westen’s theory of politics is very much an “apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln” proposition — his ignorance of American political history is so comprehensive, his vision of how politics works so replete with howlers, I can’t proceed. Consider some of this gems from his latest piece:

Obama’s apologists never address why Democrats require 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, but Republicans require only 51 — 50 in the case of the disastrous tax cuts that bankrupted our Treasury in the first place, without which we would never have had a trumped-up budget crisis.

Look, there are people whose opinions about American politics I care about. There are people who don’t understand why it requires 51 votes to pass a tax bill but may require 60 votes to pass card check. And there’s certainly no overlap in these categories. Or this:

Perhaps most problematic for the “Senate made me do it” defense is that George W. Bush pushed through virtually every piece of legislation he proposed without ever having more than 52 senators on his side of the aisle. Like most modern presidents, Bush simply appealed over the heads of members of Congress if they wouldn’t move.

The problem here is that this is all completely false. Much of Bush’s agenda failed to pass, and nothing he did pass required “going over the heads” of members of Congress who strongly opposed what he was doing. The tax cut and national security bills had strong ex ante support and no powerful opposition. NCLB and Medicare Part D were bipartisan compromises of the kind Westen would be furious about if Obama supported their equivalents, and in the latter, less bipartisan case involved not public appeals but buying off powerful constituencies. The cases where he tried to do what Westen assures us Obama could do if he just wanted to — Social Security, immigration — he conspicuously failed.   The assertion about Bush never having more than 52 Republican senators is also false, and given the relative homogeneity of the parties and the effects of the malapportionment of the Senate I’d rather have 55 Republicans than 59 Democrats.   And moving beyond clear factual errors, his bare assertions that rhetoric was central to the policy successes of FDR and Reagan haven’t gained any plausibility or empirical support in this iteration.

But where Konczal is correct is that all the Green Lantern nonsense isn’t necessary to critique Obama’s economic performance, and here I recommend ignoring Westen and just reading Konczal. There’s good reason to believe that the administration didn’t understand the magnitude of the crisis and didn’t respond adequately. Whether or not they could have gotten any kind of second stimulus out of Congress, they had no reason not to try. They made no effort to be creative with the appropriated HAMP money even after the program was a clear failure. And something Konczal doesn’t mention: he appointed an (admittedly non-wingnutty) Republican Daddy as head of the Federal Reserve and allowed other spots to remain vacant.

Facing political mortality, Obama made a pretty good speech with some pretty decent policy proposals that seems to have at least some recognition of the magnitude of the disaster. Facing possible (political) death does concentrate the mind. But, alas, there’s nothing Obama can do to get the House to support most of this — more needed to be done when the Democrats had a stronger political hand.

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