The Obama Administration

Turning the Cliff into a Launch Pad

One part of the dreaded fiscal cliff actually presents an opportunity that could be good politics and good economics. The temporary two-point cut in the payroll tax expires January 1 (along with the Bush tax cuts). The $1.2 billion sequester also kicks in.

Deficit hawks of both parties have been saying that it’s irresponsible to extend the payroll tax cut, while defenders of Social Security such as the AARP are opposed to an extension for fear of diverting revenue from the Social Security trust funds and adding ammo to the crusade for cutting back the system’s benefits.

News Flash: This Was Always a Close Election

(Flickr/dinodressed2)

From the beginning, this presidential campaign has been about discontent with the incumbent versus distrust of the challenger, and about which would trump the other less than two weeks from now on Election Day. Clearly Governor Mitt Romney’s shambles of a summer—during which unease grew over a wealthy nihilist disinclined to reveal anything credible about his finances or beliefs who is contemptuous of half the country at the other end of the economic and social spectrum—was offset for some voters by 90 minutes in early October when the Republican Party nominee forcefully berated a debate opponent who dithered between bemusement and narcolepsy. To what extent in that first debate the President of the United States’ performance sucked all light and gravity out of the surrounding cosmos, as breathless punditry would have it, is now irrelevant. I remain struck by the fact that, three weeks later, no one can remember a single brilliant thing spoken that evening by Romney or a single calamitous thing said by Barack Obama, but then I’m still of the view that Pluto might be a planet. The famous John Fordian formulation about legend displacing truth is more apt in politics than anywhere else.

Obama's Total Knockout

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee)

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Florida.

(Fiscal) Cliffs Notes

(Flickr/Matthew Wilkinson)

The most bizarre thing about the deficit and the campaign is the fact that the risk of a fiscal cliff—which everyone agrees will crash the economy—is being used to justify a slightly smaller fiscal cliff. There are several players here, so the arguments are worth sorting out. Herewith, some Cliffs Notes:

Obama: Giving Away Social Security

(AP/Rex Features)

Here is Mitt Romney’s proposal to cut Social Security benefits, from the Romney campaign website: http://www.mittromney.com/issues/social-security

First, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that the retirement age should be slowly increased to account for increases in longevity.

Second, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that benefits should continue to grow but that the growth rate should be lower for those with higher incomes.

Debate Prep with Joe

(Flickr/People for Cherry)
(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Joe Biden at a debate at Dartmouth College in September 2007.

Full Employment Is the Best Social Program

The optimistic debate about what could happen in the United States after the unemployment rate goes down

AP Photo

The unemployment rate’s drop to 7.8 percent, reported last week, marked the first time since 2009 that the rate was below 8 percent. It’s fitting that this occurred shortly after someone who predicted the rate couldn’t get below 8 percent changed his mind.

Until a year ago, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Narayana Kocherlakota had argued that there may be a new normal unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, and that adjusting the rate at which banks borrow money would do little to help. Now he argues that the Fed should commit to keeping rates low until unemployment is declines—a position in line with those hawkish about our unemployment crisis.

Obama's Other War

What’s weighing President Obama down? In a brilliant essay, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic (and a Prospect alumna) argues that the emotional toll of his job—particularly, of presiding over two wars and having to reckon with their casualties—has emotionally “shut down” the president.

We're All Values Voters

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As recently as last month’s convention, Democrats were getting their narrative back. They were uniformly praised for their message discipline and for laying out an inspiring vision for the country, reflected in a string of rousing speeches that told a story and signaled (instead of concealed) their values. After last night’s debate, Dems risk falling back into the lost decades when the party could offer only a grab bag of policy goodies to its fragile coalition instead of a coherent governing philosophy. If Barack Obama’s debate performance is any indication, they seem poised to forget a key lesson from the last three elections: We’re all “values voters.”

Are Women Better Off than We Were Four Years Ago?

(Flickr/Lekere)

Last week I confessed that I don’t like presidential election season. I don’t like the trivialized reportage, the horse-race-ification of serious subjects, and the narrowed vision that settles in on policy folks during these months. I especially don’t like the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This suggests two things to which I object: first, that the president is in charge of how well-off I am, when all of us know that American politics and global economics are far more complex . Second, that “better off” or “worse off” can be reduced to my current income and immediate financial prospects, even if those were dependent on the president. So I’m going to hijack that question for my own purposes and ask: Are women better off than we were four years ago—not just financially, and not just in ways affected by President Barack Obama’s administration, but overall?

CFPB Catches American Express Breaking the Law

American Express customers will receive $85 million in refunds for deceptive practices

(Flickr/Images_of_Money)

After a slow start, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is beginning to live up to consumer advocates' hopes and Wall Street's fears. On Monday, the new federal regulator announced a steep penalty and fine against American Express for ripping off their customers. Three subsidiaries of the credit-card company will have to refund $85 million to around 250,000 customers. As a result of the investigation—conducted by the CFPB, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Reserve Board (FRB), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and the Utah Department of Financial Institutions—American Express was fined an additional $27.5 million that will be divvied up between the various regulators' coffers.

No, We Can't All Get Along

Change - get it? (Flickr/Rakka)

Mitt Romney seems to have decided to run an entire presidential campaign on quibbling semantic arguments, which is certainly a novel approach, but not one I'd recommend for future candidates. It's not that every campaign doesn't spend way too much time complaining about the words their opponent says, but he really has taken it to a totally different level; every day seems to bring a new expression of feigned outrage at something Barack Obama said.

Over at MSNBC's "Lean Forward" blog, I have a new piece about one of these inane back-and-forths that happened last week, when Obama said he learned you couldn't change Washington from the inside, and Romney got really peeved and promised he would change it from the inside. My point was essentially that if I hear one more pundit talk about the good old days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill would argue during the day, then in the evening share a beer and bellow some old Irish sea shanties, I think I'm going to lose it:

Obama Insufficiently Audacious for Press Corps

Barack Obama, lazing about. (White House/Pete Souza)

There are few deeper ironies than to hear campaign reporters complaining that candidates are not being substantive and detailed enough, and it seems that they now may be turning their wagging finger toward both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Don't get me wrong—I'm all for substance, and there are some kinds of vagueness that have to be confronted. For instance, the fact that Romney says he can cut taxes but keep things revenue neutral by also cutting loopholes, yet steadfastly refuses to say which loopholes he'll eliminate, is just absurd and should be called out. Yet if he came out tomorrow with a dozen new lengthy policy papers, would the campaign reporters on his bus stay up late studying them so they could produce one policy-dense analysis after another? No, they wouldn't. Just as candidates often want to seem substantive without actually being substantive, the reporters want to judge substance without having to actually examine substance.

The Republicans' Foreign Policy Problem

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Pop quiz: if you had to describe the Obama foreign policy in one sentence, what would you say? Not easy, is it? Back in 2008, it was pretty simple: "Not Bush." Now back then, there was something called the "Bush doctrine," which may have had a subtle meaning to those working in the administration, but as far as the public was concerned mostly meant "invading lots of countries and making everyone in the world hate us." So it was easy to imagine Obama as a breath of foreign policy fresh air. He'd use a less-bumbling combination of diplomacy, "soft power," and carefully restrained force. He'd get us out of Iraq. Things would change for the better.

But now that Obama has been president for four years, "Not Bush" has lost its relevance. Obama's actual foreign policy is too complicated to sum up easily, and probably therefore too complicated for most voters to understand. We did get out of Iraq, but things don't seem to be going too well in Afghanistan; Obama has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes, which have solved some problems and created others; though opinions of America are somewhat better, lots of people still don't like us. It's a complex picture, and in the context of an election, the Obama campaign is going to react to most foreign policy questions with, "Remember that guy Osama bin Laden? He's dead."

True enough, but this complexity has left Republicans seemingly unable to critique the Obama foreign policy.

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