How Strange Is It That We Have No Idea What the President's Economic Strategy Is?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My Dorf on Law post yesterday was focused mostly on the all-but-certain return of the debt ceiling as the political crisis this Fall.  At one point in the post, however, I mentioned a related point:
"[N]either the White House nor the Democratic leadership in Congress has come up with any strategy -- even a completely defensive one, much less an affirmative vision -- with which to win over the public.  Are there any Democratic Senators or Representatives who are spending the recess selling the Democrats' budget strategy to their constituents?  No, because there is no strategy."
As I reflected on yesterday's post, two further questions came to mind: (1) Am I being unfair to the President and his party, asserting that they have no strategy, when in fact they are merely the victims of House Republicans' intransigence?  (2) Is it really such a bad thing that the President has not, at the very least, imprinted his vision for economic policy on the public's mind?

On the first question, my initial inclination was to do the simple research necessary to see what policies the Administration has actually proposed.  I could look at the White House's website, for example.  In addition, the President has included economic policy proposals (or, at least, broad ideas) in various speeches.  Moreover, the White House did submit a full budget proposal earlier this year (as required by law).  Surely, therefore, it would be wrong to claim that the President has never articulated things that he would like to see happen, across the range of economic policy areas.

Still, it is notable in itself that I would need to engage in even a small amount of research to remind myself what it is that the President seems to want.  If a budget-obsessed academic like me has to stop and scratch his head, trying to recall some of the things that the President has proposed, that is not a good sign.

Without doing any research, what could I remember?  The President has proposed an increase in the minimum wage.  He has proposed more support for community colleges.  I am fairly certain that he has proposed some progressive tax increases.  On the downside, he has recently proposed an absurd rating system for colleges, which would determine funding levels based on some No Child Left Behind-like "objective" measures that again blame educational institutions for society's ills.  (He has also, for no apparent reason and based on no particular expertise, endorsed turning law school into a 2-year program.)  He has offered to cut future Social Security benefits.

For good and ill, therefore, the President has offered some economic ideas that are not completely forgotten.  That, however, is definitely not the same thing as a strategy.  As I wrote yesterday, a Democratic officeholder who wanted to sell her constituents on the President's budget strategy would have nothing to say.  She could repeat various proposals that the President has meted out over the years.  But what, exactly, is the strategy?  What is the message?

Whatever else one might say about the Republicans (and it would all be bad), it is at least true that we know what they currently hope to accomplish, at least in the short run.  (As I argued earlier this year, here and here, their only unalterable "principles" seem to be cutting taxes for the rich, and opposing anything that Obama favors.)  Every Republican officeholder can say to his constituents that he favors cutting spending (especially spending that helps poor people), that he wants to cut taxes (especially for rich people), that he opposes regulations of all kinds, and so on.

It speaks well of the Democrats, of course, that their position is nuanced, which makes it more difficult to put their proposals on bumper stickers.  Even so, we do not really know whether the President favors an increase in short-term deficits, and if he does, whether he is deliberately trying not to say so.  Again, however, a strategy need not be based on simplistic slogans.  There is, as far as I can tell, virtually nothing affirmative for Democrats to say to voters, other than, "We're not lunatics."

Sane is better than crazy, of course, but Democrats have no unifying concepts within which their various policy ideas seem to fit.  Certainly, even interested observers like me are left wondering just what the President really wants.  Does he care about anything, when it comes to economic policy?  I am sure that the President's defenders would say that he does, but why is it even a plausible question to ask?

The answer to my first question -- whether it is unfair to say that the President lacks a budgetary strategy -- is thus "no," unless one drains the word strategy of all meaning.  My second question is whether this is actually such a bad thing.  It is certainly not unprecedented for a President to focus on other issues, becoming consumed with matters that demand immediate attention.  In the extreme case, I recall criticizing the first President Bush for having no economic strategy at all in 1991-92, even as he ran for reelection.  I noted that he had not bothered even to provide much in the way of unpublicized economic policy proposals.  Other than being in favor of cutting capital gains taxes, we had no idea what he wanted, or whether he cared about anything economic.

As a political matter, of course, Bush I was simply trying to run on his foreign policy, claiming that the first Gulf War showed his brilliance as a global strategist.  Even though his son ended up showing how to make much bigger mistakes when it comes to starting wars, it was not even true at the time that the Bush foreign policy was much of a success.  (People often forget just how murky the beginning of that whole debacle was, with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait having been all but green-lighted by a Bush representative.)  Nevertheless, he thought foreign policy was his strong suit, and he openly neglected economic policy.

It is difficult to think of any Presidents, other than Obama and the first Bush, who seemed to have no economic vision or strategy at all.  Bush became a one-term President because of his neglect, and Obama averted that fate only by being blessed with self-destructive opponents and strong on-the-ground political operations.  The country survived Bush's indifference to economics, in part because the Democrats running both Houses of Congress made sure that economic policy ambled along relatively smoothly.

We do not have that luxury today.  On the other hand, the very reason that economic policy is so important today -- the craziness of House Republicans -- might also be a reason that it does not really matter whether the President or his party have a strategy that goes beyond controlling the damage.

Maybe.  As I suggested yesterday, however, this still leaves the Democrats with nothing to say to voters, and it does not allow them to articulate a starting position on which future negotiations can be based.  They oppose draconian, regressive policies, which is good.  Without something actually to support, however, they can define success down to the point where they agree to pass policies that are merely slightly less draconian.   This is a failure of leadership.