These days everyone loves Barack Obama, right? Well actually no. Even though Obama’s job approval and personal popularity ratings are very high for an incoming president, some people hold a negative view, and many commentators in newspapers and blogs are offering advice to the new president that crosses the line into criticism. From both the right and the left, there are thoughtful people who disagree with the new “post ideological” President largely on ideological grounds.
Given that one of the greatest shortcomings of the outgoing administration was its inability to hear and learn from its critics, paying attention to the voices and views of people who are not riding on the Obama train, amounts to needed change. The critics deserve to be heard even if we ultimately do not decide to follow their advice. In part 1 of this series we listen to the voices of criticism coming from conservatives.
Beyond Rush Limbaugh, the self-proclaimed “last man standing” against Obama worship, mocking Obama for, among other things, painting a wall in a homeless shelter in a call for national service as codling the poor, most criticism of Obama from the right takes the form of criticism of the financial bailout and the economic stimulus plan.
The critics of Obama’s economic proposals from the right have to be viewed as coming in two flavors: those that oppose government bailouts and stimulus plans in principle, and those that view the current efforts as too hurried, too large, or too laden with other liberal priorities.
The first group really has a dispute with former President George W. Bush; Henry Paulson, Bush’s Former Treasury Secretary; and Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve. These Republicans initiated the massive government intrusions into the markets in the early fall of 2008, and their judgments gain a certain credibility, at least for their sincerity, given that these decisions amounted to an admission of failure and abandonment of core conservative economic principles just weeks before a national election with predictable catastrophic electoral consequences for Republican candidates.
Nonetheless, critics of these policies will be with us for the rest of our lives. There will always be people who cannot imagine the unimaginable consequences Bush, Paulson and Bernanke predicted would arise if the bailouts did not occur. With the economy heading from bad to worse in spite of these policies, those who opposed the bailouts in 2008 or regret supporting them will blame them for whatever we endure in 2009 and beyond. Obama inherits these Bush critics along with many other undesirable inheritances.
If Obama is picking up some debris from attacks by conservatives who oppose the Bush’s bailouts, he is also sustaining collateral damage from the second group of conservatives who are really taking aim at Congressional Democrats like Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and differ with the way the stimulus bill is taking shape on The Hill. These two groups combined to deny any Republican votes for the House version of the stimulus plan. Clearly some of the specific critiques and suggestions are more worthy than others and over the weekend the White House and other Congressional leaders signaled the likelihood that the Senate Bill could change to accommodate reasonable concerns.
In broad strokes it is fairly easy to separate the reasonable criticism of the stimulus plan from the unreasonable ones. The Democrats should show more restraint when it comes to reversals of Bush policies that are not clearly connected to immediate economic stimulus. In many cases the Democrats may have a strong case on the merits for taking a more progressive direction on a wide variety of issues, and following two decisive elections they may also have the numbers to prevail, but the immediate crisis should not be used to short change deliberation of these issues that are not directly related to keeping the global economy from entering a death spiral.
Republican Senator Susan Collins expressed this sentiment over the weekend on CNN saying, “Unfortunately, this bill has become a Christmas tree where members are hanging their favorite program on it. A lot of these programs are worthwhile. But we have to focus on what the impact is on the economy and whether or not the spending creates or saves jobs. That’s the question. That’s the test that needs to be passed.”
The Republicans are pushing a much weaker argument when they diminish the investment side of the stimulus plan and call for greater tax cuts than they have already received. Once again, the real challenge for Republicans is to find an economic proposal that was not in George W. Bush’s failed playbook. When Senator McCain reiterated his call to make George Bush’s tax cuts permanent, last weekend, it was as much of a dead letter then as it was when he campaigned for it last October.
But one does not have to be a conservative to think the stimulus bill needs to be more narrowly targeted to immediate stimulus. Part 2 of this series, Who Doesn’t Like Barack Obama: Criticism from the Left and Center, will be available soon.