The Thinker

An adult in charge

According to the latest AP-GfK poll, President Obama’s approval rating is at sixty percent. Much of this can be attributed to the death of Osama bin Laden. This high won’t last, but with ratings like these even at nine percent unemployment, America is feeling unusually favorable toward our president. This includes those ever-fickle independents. If Americans are generally satisfied with a president, they tend to stick with him for a second term. Consequently, it will be hard for Republicans to develop a compelling case against his reelection. Also working in Obama’s favor: a breathtaking lack of compelling Republican challengers.

Republicans may not be fact-based or evidence-driven, but thankfully at least our president is. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been dealt such an ugly hand upon taking office. FDR did much to soften the Great Depression by reducing unemployment almost in half, but it took a war to fully pull America out of its funk. After two years, we are technically out of a recession, but because of gas price increases, high unemployment and depressed housing prices most of us still feel like we are in one. Obama has done much to bring the change that he promised, but it is clear there is still much to do.

One thing that has worked in his favor is his willingness to work strategically. His ability to focus on something that would change the dynamic in the War on Terror, through finding and killing Osama bin Laden, was but one example. Obama had planned to start withdrawing troops this year from Afghanistan. With Americans solidly wanting us to get out of the country, he may finally take up my suggestion and withdraw. Our objective, at least as it was originally conceived when the War on Terror began, is accomplished. Al Qaeda, if there is anything left of it, likely doesn’t have more than a few dozen people in Afghanistan. The Taliban are again out of power. Combine a withdrawal from Afghanistan with a nearly complete withdrawal from Iraq, and he can claim two foreign policy successes. (Timing will be important, however. The Afghan government was never likely to remain in power for long after we left, and almost certainly won’t be able to once we are gone. If its government has to fall, it’s best to make sure it happens shortly after the election.)

Everyone seems surprised by the president we actually got. Like most liberals, I was hoping for a more comprehensive health care reform than the half-baked mess we actually got. I did not expect him to turn out to be as centrist a president as he is. In some ways he is Republican in the 1970s mold. He is a centrist to all but Republicans who by moving their goal post so far to the right claim he is a socialist. He turned out to have way more energy than I expected. Bill Clinton was legendary for his short sleep cycles and long working hours. I don’t know how many hours Obama actually works, but I am amazed by his ability to smartly multitask, to delegate responsibly, to ask the right probing questions and to play his cards close to his chest. He might want to take up competitive poker in retirement.

I remember groaning last December when before the new Congress took office he pushed for a politically risky set of spending cuts and tax reductions. However, it was a smart thing to do. It postponed inevitable confrontations with Congress and kept a fragile recovery from faltering by putting more money into Americans’ pockets. Frankly, it was both smart and gutsy. He knew that if given a choice between cutting spending and pocketing tax cuts, Republicans would pick the latter. He made their weaknesses work to his advantage.

Obama also surprises in unconventional ways. Few people pay attention to our space program, but essentially Obama decided the way we were doing manned spaceflight needed to evolve. He then directed the private sector to pick up the slack of getting our astronauts into orbit. It was time, fifty years into the space race, to let private industry bear these costs and risks instead of the taxpayer. Bush’s Orion program smelled from when it was first announced. You knew there was going to be (and there were) cost overruns and delays, and it would be done inefficiently. However long it takes for companies like SpaceX to provide NASA with a commercial vehicle to put astronauts in space, it will be done faster and cheaper than with requirements and oversight coming out of NASA. Instead, NASA can concentrate its manned spaceflight program on areas that matter: outside of earth orbit as well as devote more resources to its highly successful and cost efficient unmanned program.

If Obama has any genius this might be it: to see the underlying problem in any system or endeavor and sense what it truly takes to fix it. Obama understands things all politicians should understand but many deliberately choose not to understand. He understands that to reduce deficits in the long term, you need to increase deficits in the short term. The real problem with our trillion-dollar deficit is not the cost of entitlements, although Medicare and Medicaid cost increases are serious. The real problem is that our federal government is funded primarily through income taxes, and when people are unemployed or earn less, they pay less income tax. When millions are thrown out of the workforce in a short period of time, which is exactly what happened during this Great Recession, tax revenues plummet. It is not politically possible for budgets to be cut that much at same time, particularly when Americans particularly need services governments provide in recessions. So deficits increase.

I have yet to hear one prominent Republican admit the simple truth that declining income taxes are the principle cause of our current deficit. Of course, not many of them will admit that two unpaid for wars and an unpaid for expansion of Medicare contributed to the problem either. Cutting spending and increasing taxes would both reduce the deficit, but neither or both really solve it. A robust economy where the government gets a reasonable but not excessive share of the wealth is the way to really get rid of deficits. We know it works because it worked in the Clinton Administration. Confidence begets more confidence. Prosperity balances budgets and eventually creates surpluses, if spending is held in check with economic growth. High stakes showdowns over a debt ceiling does not engender confidence; in fact, it engenders just the opposite.

It would be hard to imagine a more irascible opposition than the Republican opposition that Obama currently has. It is one driven almost entirely by principle, much of it logically inconsistent. What a noxious brew they are, setting impossible demands to cut trillions in return for raising our debt ceiling. Yet, the crazier and more irascible that Republicans become, the more pragmatic and sober Obama appears. For the president, it becomes a virtuous cycle and for Republicans it merely lowers their overall low approval ratings even further. The burden for compromise shifts to Republicans, particularly when Obama and the Democrats are willing to go half way and they are not. Republicans are unlikely to capitulate entirely, but eventually the obvious self inflicted political carnage will likely result in small increments to the debt ceiling while parties try to work things out. A true grand compromise is unlikely given that there is so little common ground and an election will loom. Americans however want bipartisanship, and seeing none of it from Republicans merely reinforces their current case of buyer’s remorse. The advantage in the 2012 elections thus clearly swings toward the Democrats, who, the referenced AP poll show are picking up traction. On only one issue, national security, does the country trust Republicans more than Democrats, and that’s by a single point.

The middle is where elections are won but Republicans simply will not go there. Obama though has occupied that field and Democrats, somewhat reluctantly, are moving in as well. He is building political capital by being the only adult in the room.

It’s a shame though that he’s the only one.


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