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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Obamanomics: How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy

I. A Broken Economy

As Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic nomination this week, it is clear that the economic policies of the next president are going to be hugely important. Ever since Wall Street bankers were called back from their vacations last summer to deal with the convulsions in the mortgage market, the economy has been lurching from one crisis to the next. The International Monetary Fund has described the situation as “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.” The details are too technical for most of us to understand. (They’re too technical for many bankers to understand, which is part of the problem.) But the root cause is simple enough. In some fundamental ways, the American economy has stopped working.

The fact that the economy grows — that it produces more goods and services one year than it did in the previous one — no longer ensures that most families will benefit from its growth. For the first time on record, an economic expansion seems to have ended without family income having risen substantially. Most families are still making less, after accounting for inflation, than they were in 2000. For these workers, roughly the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder, economic growth has become a theoretical concept rather than the wellspring of better medical care, a new car, a nicer house — a better life than their parents had.

Americans have still been buying such things, but they have been doing so with debt. A big chunk of that debt will never be repaid, which is the most basic explanation for the financial crisis. Even after the crisis has passed, the larger problem of income stagnation will remain. It’s hardly the economy’s only serious problem either. There is also the slow unraveling of the employer-based health-insurance system and the fact that, come 2011, the baby boomers will start to turn 65, setting off an enormous rise in the government’s Medicare and Social Security obligations.

Most of these problems aren’t immediate, which helps explain why they have gone unaddressed for so long. And the United States remains a fabulously prosperous country, relative to almost any other country, at any point in history. Yet Americans seem to realize that something has gone wrong. In recent polls, about 80 percent of respondents say the economy is in bad shape, and almost 70 percent say it’s going to get worse. Together, these answers make for the most downbeat assessment since at least the early 1980s, and underscore that the next president will be inheriting a set of domestic problems as serious as any the country has faced in a long time.

John McCain’s economic vision, as he has laid it out during the campaign, amounts to a slightly altered version of Republican orthodoxy, with tax cuts at the core. Obama, on the other hand, has more-detailed proposals but a less obvious ideology.

Well before this point on the presidential calendar, it’s usually clear where a candidate fits within the political spectrum of his party. With Obama, there is vast disagreement about just how liberal he is, especially on the economy. My favorite example came in mid-June, shortly after Obama named Jason Furman, a protégé of Robert Rubin, the centrist former Treasury secretary, as his lead economic adviser. Labor leaders recoiled, and John Sweeney, the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., worried aloud about “corporate influence on the Democratic Party.” Then, the following week, Kimberley Strassel, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, wrote a column titled, “Farewell, New Democrats,” concluding that Obama’s economic policies amounted to the end of Clintonian centrism and a reversion to old liberal ways.

Some of the confusion stems from Obama’s own strategy of presenting himself as a postpartisan figure. A few weeks ago, I joined him on a flight from Orlando to Chicago and began our conversation by asking about his economic approach. He started to answer, but then interrupted himself. “My core economic theory is pragmatism,” he said, “figuring out what works.”

This, of course, is not the whole story. Invoking pragmatism doesn’t help the average voter much; ideology, though it often gets a bad name, matters, because it offers insight into how a candidate might actually behave as president. I have spent much of this year trying to get a handle on what is sometimes called Obamanomics and have come away thinking that Obama does have an economic ideology. It’s just not a completely familiar one. Depending on how you look at it, he is both more left-wing and more right-wing than many people realize.

II. A New Democratic Consensus, of Sorts

To understand where Obama stands, you first have to know that, for 15 years, Democratic Party economics have been defined by a struggle that took place during the start of the Clinton administration. It was the battle of the Bobs. On one side was Clinton’s labor secretary and longtime friend, Bob Reich, who argued that the government should invest in roads, bridges, worker training and the like to stimulate the economy and help the middle class. On the other side was Bob Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive turned White House aide, who favored reducing the deficit to soothe the bond market, bring down interest rates and get the economy moving again. Clinton cast his lot with Rubin, and to this day the first question about any Democrat’s economic outlook is often where his heart lies, with Reich or Rubin, the left or the center, the government or the market.

Obama has obviously studied this debate, and early on during the flight to Chicago, he told me a story about Reich and Rubin. The previous week, Obama convened a discussion with a high-powered group of economists and chief executives. He was sitting at a conference table, with Rubin two seats to his left and Reich across from him. “One of the points I raised,” Obama told me, “is if you just use you, Bob, and you, Bob, as caricatures, the truth is, both of you acknowledge the world is more complicated.” By this, Obama didn’t simply mean that their views were more nuanced than many outsiders understood. He meant that both have come to acknowledge that the other man is, in part, correct. The two now occupy more similar ideological places than they did in 1993. The battle of the Bobs may not be completely over, but it has certainly been suspended.

Among the policy experts and economists who make up the Democratic government-in-waiting, there is now something of a consensus. They agree that deficit reduction did an enormous amount of good. It helped usher in the 1990s boom and the only period of strong, broad-based income growth in a generation. But that boom also depended on a technology bubble and historically low oil prices. In the current decade, the economy has continued to grow at a decent pace, yet most families have seen little benefit. Instead, the benefits have flowed mostly to a small slice of workers at the very top of the income distribution. As Rubin told me, comparing the current moment with 1993, “The distributional issues are obviously more serious now.” From today’s vantage point, inequality looks likes a bigger problem than economic growth; fiscal discipline seems necessary but not sufficient.

In practical terms, the new consensus means that the policies of an Obama administration would differ from those of the Clinton administration, but not primarily because of differences between the two men. “The economy has changed in the last 15 years, and our understanding of economic policy has changed as well,” Furman says. “And that means that what was appropriate in 1993 is no longer appropriate.” Obama’s agenda starts not with raising taxes to reduce the deficit, as Clinton’s ended up doing, but with changing the tax code so that families making more than $250,000 a year pay more taxes and nearly everyone else pays less. That would begin to address inequality. Then there would be Reich-like investments in alternative energy, physical infrastructure and such, meant both to create middle-class jobs and to address long-term problems like global warming.

All of this raises the question of what will happen to the deficit. Obama’s aides optimistically insist he will reduce it, thanks to his tax increases on the affluent and his plan to wind down the Iraq war. Relative to McCain, whose promised spending cuts are extremely vague, Obama does indeed look like a fiscal conservative. But the larger point is that the immediate deficit isn’t as big as it was in 1992. Then, it was equal to 4.7 percent of gross domestic product. Right now it’s about 2.5 percent.

During our conversation, Obama made it clear that he considered the deficit to be only one of the long-term problems requiring immediate attention, and he sounded more worried about the others, like global warming, health care and the economic hangover that could follow the housing bust. Tellingly, he said that while he admired what Clinton did, he might have been more open to Reich’s argument — even in 1993. “I still would have probably made a slightly different choice than Clinton did,” Obama said. “I probably wouldn’t have been as obsessed with deficit reduction.”

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(hat tip: Christien)

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