Pundits Competing to Frame Obama
After less than two months of Barack Obamaâ€™s presidency, pundits across the spectrum are competing to â€œframeâ€ the new administration. There are lots of narratives, but, in my mind, the most potent ones are expressed in two editorials appearing today.
From the negative side, Janet Daley at Britainâ€™s Telegraph argues that Obama is handing the reins over to liberal Democrats in Congress:
[W]hy, when [Obama] went to such pains to assemble a huge and widely experienced team of White House economic advisers (even going to the lengths of parading them at a press conference before he took office) he then handed over the actual drafting of his economic policy to the old Democratic fixers in Congress. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, are now, for all intents and purposes, running the Obama recovery plan.
Needless to say, Daley has a very low opinion of Pelosiâ€™s and Reidâ€™s motives and capabilities.
From the positive side, former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, writes in Salon that Obama is plotting a radically ingenious course likely to remake America and end the economic troubles started under Reagan.
The basic idea of Reaganomics was that the economy grows from the top down. Lower taxes on the wealthy make them work harder and invest more, and the benefits trickle down to everyone else. Rarely in economic history has a theory been more tested in the real world and proven so wrong. In point of fact, nothing trickled down. After the Reagan tax cuts, increases in the median wage slowed, adjusted for inflation. After George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, the median wage actually dropped. Meanwhile, most of the income went to the top. In 1980, just before the Reagan revolution, the richest 1 percent took home 9 percent of total national income. But by 2007, the richest 1 percent was taking home 22 percent.
Obamanomics, by contrast, holds that an economy grows best from the bottom up. Obama’s program increases taxes on the top and uses the proceeds to raise the living standard of average Americans by giving them lower taxes, better schools and more affordable health insurance. That may not seem very radical, but compared with the last quarter century it’s revolutionary.
Reich notes that Obamaâ€™s administration is working hard to present his programs as incremental changes, but Reich sees them for the radical change they are.
Hereâ€™s why I think these two narratives are likely to compete for public attention for at least the next two years:
First, on the Daley side of things, Reid and particularly Pelosi are certainly harmful to Obamaâ€™s hopes for change. They seem far more interested in political payback and rewarding key interest groups than they are in improving government. As long as the current Democratic congressional leadership is in place, Obama will have to either fight the good fight or acquiesce to bad policy. So far, heâ€™s done more acquiescing than some of us would like, thus setting himself up to be labeled a pawn of the liberal/establishmentarian wing of his party.
On the Reich side of things, heâ€™s putting the Obama presidency into the kind of framework from which legacies are born. If the economy turns around, Reichâ€™s narrative would give Obama the kind of big idea, reformer credit which only Roosevelt and Reagan have enjoyed in the last 75 years. A good economy in 2012 would give Obama the opportunity to run not just as a competent manager but has a political savoir, potentially ushering in an era of â€œtrickle upâ€ dominance.
The difference in the positive and negative narratives is that the negative is based on a very real problem (the small mindedness of the Democratic congressional leadership), while the positive is based on the hope/belief the economy will indeed rebound and weâ€™ll be better off afterwards. I would go so far as to say for the â€œObama as savoirâ€ narrative to work, the president must first solve the â€œCongress as stone-around-the-neckâ€ problem first.
Right now, none of us knows what the next few years will bring. But donâ€™t expect that to stop the worldâ€™s pundits from trying to define Obama before a single result is in.