Tag Archives: President Obama

Czars, Kings, and Presidents

By James Kwak

Over the years, Tim Geithner has come in for a lot of well-deserved criticism: for putting banks before homeowners, for lobbying for Citigroup when it wanted to buy Wachovia, for denying even the possibility of taking over failed banks, and so on. The release of his book, whatever it’s called, has revived these various debates. Geithner is certainly not the man I would want making crucial decisions for our country. But it’s also important to remember that he was only an upper manager. The man who called the shots was his boss: Barack Obama.

That’s the theme of Jesse Eisinger’s column this week. I’m on Eisinger’s email list, and he described the tendency to focus on Tim Geithner—while ignoring the role of the president—as “If only the Tsar knew what the Cossacks are doing!” I wasn’t familiar with the Russian version, but I’ve always been fond of the seventeenth-century French version. In September 2009, for example, Simon and I wrote this about the financial reform debate: 

“During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, ‘If only the king knew . . . .’ Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.

“But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.”

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Tax Policy Revisionism

By James Kwak

In an otherwise unobjectionable article about The Piketty, the generally excellent David Leonhardt wrote this sentence: “In the 1950s, the top rate exceeded 90 percent. Today, it is 39.6 percent, and only because President Obama finally won a yearslong battle with Republicans in early 2013 to increase it from 35 percent.”

Is “yearslong” really a word?

But that’s not what I mean to quibble with. It’s that “yearslong battle with Republicans.”

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What Is Social Insurance?

By James Kwak

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

Many liberals have been heartened by these words, spoken by President Obama during Monday’s inaugural address. Indeed, they represent one of the few times when anyone, including the president, has even attempted to defend our major social insurance and safety net programs. The usual posture among the type of centrist Democrats who make it into the administration is some combination of (a) simply attacking, as self-evidently evil, anyone who proposes benefit cuts and (b) saying in serious tones that we will have to cut spending one way or another.

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Democrats and the Bush Tax Cuts

By James Kwak

Mark Thoma provides an excerpt from Noam Scheiber on Peter Orszag’s attempt to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire. In short, Orszag wanted to extend the “middle-class” tax cuts for two years (letting the tax cuts for the rich expire); then he expected the middle-class tax cuts to expire as well. President Obama was interested in the plan, which Scheiber takes as evidence that “the president is a true fiscal conservative.”

Thoma frames this as a bad thing:

“The explanation, of course, is that despite hopes to the contrary (and denial by some), the president is, ‘a true fiscal conservative’ — it’s not just an act in an attempt to capture the middle — and that could be bad news not just for middle class tax cuts, but also for important social insurance programs such as Social Security.”

I like and respect Mark Thoma a great deal, and I generally think of him as a mainstream Democrat on economic issues, neither a socialist nor a “moderate Democrat” (what we used to call a Republican). To me, his post is evidence that many Democrats think that most of the Bush tax cuts were an are a good thing. This confuses me. When did we become the party of tax cuts?

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Confused?

By James Kwak

Some of the headline numbers for President Obama’s deficit reduction proposal that you hear are the following:

  • $3 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years—more than the $1.2–1.5 trillion expected from the Joint Select Committee (JSC)
  • $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including the discretionary spending caps in the Budget Control Act
  • $1.5 trillion in tax increases
  • $1 trillion in deficit reduction by capping spending on Iraq and Afghanistan

This didn’t make sense to me for a few reasons, notably that any deal that preserves any of the Bush tax cuts should be scored by the CBO as a tax cut, which increases the deficit. The actual numbers are rather more complicated.

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The Obama Renaissance

By James Kwak

President Obama is enjoying something of a political resurgence, at least among the commentariat. Ezra Klein points out that his approval ratings remain higher than those of his Congressional opposition, as opposed to Clinton in 1994 and Bush in 2006. In The New York Times, Michael Shear says the lame-duck session of Congress could be a “big win” for Obama, and Matt Bai hails the tax cut compromise as “responsible governance” and says it could lead to a successful presidency.

Obama is certainly in a decent position politically, and I would bet on him to be reelected comfortably in 2012. First off, his opponents in Congress are deeply irresponsible (admittedly: The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”) and face a huge political problem within their own party: a significant portion of the conservative base really does want lower deficits, yet the only thing the Republican caucus knows how to do is cut taxes. Klein points out that the Republicans will eliminate House rules that spending increases or tax cuts have to be offset elsewhere, and will instead say that “tax cuts don’t have to be paid for, and spending increases can’t be offset by tax increases.” Second, the Tea Party and Sarah Palin mean that Obama is likely to face an opponent who has been pulled dangerously close to the lunatic fringe during the primary (or, even better yet, Palin  herself). And third, there’s triangulation.

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President Obama Can Bounce Back

By Simon Johnson

Conventional wisdom is now that the parlous state of the economy will seriously damage President Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.  Perhaps, but this view misses what we should expect in terms of global financial dynamics – and how this is likely to affect the US economy over the next two years.

Details are in my Bloomberg column this morning.

What Is President Obama’s Fiscal Message?

By Simon Johnson

President Obama is finally attempting to cut through some of the disinformation and confusion that surrounds US fiscal policy in general and taxes in particular.  His suggestion this week is: let’s (effectively) raise taxes on relatively high income people – by letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those people – while introducing temporary tax breaks that will more directly stimulate business investment and presumably hiring. 

Any way you cut it, the numbers involved are not big enough to impact unemployment significantly by November, but these ideas – and the Republican rival suggestions currently on the table – are more about symbols, messages, and midterm votes than about accelerating the economic recovery.  Seen in those terms, the president is still missing a key argument in both economic and political terms. Continue reading

Fire Up Twitter

The White House has over 1.75 million followers on Twitter

The latest presidential tweet is a bit stale (17 hours ago), but right on target.

“Obama to Senate GOP blocking increase in oil company liability: “stop playing special interest politics” http://bit.ly/d65jfY

The White House needs to send out the exact same message, but replacing “increase in oil company liability” with “financial reform”, and then linking to the Merkley-Levin amendment and the imminent failure of the Volcker Rule and meaningful financial reform.

How hard can that be?

Update (12:40pm): at about 10:30am, the president’s staff put out this tweet (@BarackObama; i.e., http://twitter.com/BarackObama, with nearly 4 million followers):

“It’s time for Wall St. reform that gives greater security to folks on Main Street. Call your Republican Senators today: http://j.mp/cwhtg7

Good tweet – but the president should call explicitly for Merkley-Levin to pass; this is his own Volcker Rule, after all.  Here’s Senator Jeff Merkley, to the point: http://twitter.com/senjeffmerkley

Make The Call Or Get Out Of The Booth: After The President’s “Wall Street” Speech

By Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover And The Next Financial Meltdown

Update: The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has a petition that takes you to a page with your senators’ names and phone numbers, as well as a script to use when calling them.

The president’s rhetoric today at Cooper Union was impressive and his body language indicates a major shift in administration attitudes towards the big banks over the past year.  This is commendable.

But there is still the awkward question of legislation that would actually reduce the political power of big banks – and make our financial system significantly safer.  The latest indications from the Senate are that there will be some sort of “Dodd minus” compromise bill brought to the floor early next week.  The Republicans have substantially backed down from Senator McConnell’s “hell, no” position of last week because the polling is crystal clear: Anyone perceived as opposed financial reform will lose badly in November.

But the Democratic leadership is not seizing on this advantage and on the opportunity presented by the SEC case against Goldman Sachs – key figures in the Democratic establishments are too worried about upsetting financial sector donors.  As a result, come November, independents will view the Democrats with scorn, while the Democratic base will be far from energized; you do the math.

What can you do?  What makes sense in both economic and political terms? Continue reading

What Should The President Say On Thursday?

By Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and The Next Financial Meltdown

On Thursday, President Obama will give one of the defining speeches of his presidency.  Most presidents are remembered for only 2 or 3 policies or events during their tenure.  The SEC case against Goldman Sachs means, like it or not, the legacy of this administration is wrapped up with the outcome of this and related cases.

The president is apparently lining up to give a fairly conventional “support the Dodd bill” speech.  This would be major miscalculation.

The Democrats are afraid that if they truly take on the big banks, they will lose campaign contributions and be placed a major disadvantage for November 2010 and 2012 – “don’t push it too far” is the message from the White House to the Senate.  But this just shows the White House has not fully comprehended the modern nature of banking. Continue reading

Whose Fault?

To believe politicians in Washington and pundits in the media, the national debt has become the most important political issue of the day. (Whether it should be–as opposed to, say, jobs–is another question.) The Republican argument is, basically: “Big deficits! Democratic president! His fault!” The Obama administration argument, by contrast, is “No way! George W. Bush’s fault!”

I generally side with Obama on this one, mainly because of the two Bush tax cuts and the unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit. Keith Hennessey, Bush’s last director of the National Economic Council, has a counterargument. Some of his points are good. OK, well, one point–the fourth one down. Hennessey is right that what initially transformed the Clinton surplus into the Bush deficit was the 2001 recession, which was beyond Bush’s control–just like what transformed the large Bush deficits of 2007-2008 into the enormous Obama deficits of today was the 2007-2009 recession.

The other points are good debating, but I don’t buy them. This could take a while.

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President Obama’s Regulatory Reforms Announcement: A Viewer’s Guide

At 12:30pm on Wednesday at the White House (someone: please update the Treasury’s schedule of events), President Obama is due to “unveil” his proposals for reforming the functioning of our financial system.  The content has already been foreshadowed in some detail, most notably by the Geithner-Summers op ed in the Washington Post on Monday, but what the President himself stresses is still important – everyone who matters for the reform of financial regulation will be in attendance and his remarks (and perhaps those of Secretary Geithner) can absolutely set the tone of the debate.

In particular, the implicit story the President tells will frame our collective discussions going forward and – on some points – could even help tip the balance against established lobbies.

There are at least 10 important questions the President may address or shy away from tomorrow.  Add your own suggestions below. Continue reading