Must-read: John Stoehr: Thomas Frank and the Illusion of Presidential Omnipotence

Must-Read: John Stoehr: Thomas Frank and the Illusion of Presidential Omnipotence: “In Listen, Liberal, Frank describes President-elect Barack Obama, as the financial crisis is beginning to unfold, as…

…a ‘living, breathing evidence that our sclerotic system could still function, that we could rise to the challenge, that could change course. It was the perfect opportunity for transformation.’ Yet, Frank says, that transformation didn’t happen. So Obama and the Democrats failed. But what could they have been done differently? While he excels at calling the Democrats to account, Frank falls short in offering policy recommendations, even rough sketches of policy. There are none. Populists don’t take such questions seriously, because such questions assume that knowledge, method, and procedure are more important than believing in the righteousness of the cause. Frank is no exception….

Frank and Sanders are right in one very big way—inequities of wealth, income, and power threaten our lives, livelihoods, and republican democracy. All of us need big bold ideas and the political courage to see them realized. Being right in one very big way is the primary strength of populism. Progressives do the work, but populists are the voices of conscience, the moral scolds, the screaming Jeremiahs. But they are wrong too. The current president has done more with more resistance in the name of progress than any president since nobody knows. Along with flawed-but-good health care reform, financial regulation, and sustainable energy policy, Obama has achieved: gender-equity laws; minimum wage rules for government contractors; a labor relations board that serves labor; and a tax rule barring corporate ‘inversions.’ And he formally ended two wars…

Well, Obama could have pushed the paper on appointments–a head of FHFA willing to use the GSEs as tools of macro policy should that become necessary, and a filled up-Federal Reserve Board to counteract the baneful influence of too-many regional bank presidents who did not understand the situation and would not learn. He could have used bank reliance on TARP money to take equity–and then shut down their lobbying efforts in opposition to Dodd-Frank. Given that Republican obstructionism was very predictable, the right move was to pass a very large Reconciliation package in January 2009: a carbon tax to deal with global warming, Medicare-for-all, a first Recovery Act and the path greased for a second Recovery Act to be passed by a bare majority should it become necessary, plus an infrastructure bank. Then you could bargain back to the cap-and-trade policies you really wanted from a position in which failure to come to the table was much more painful for the Republicans than coming to the negotiating table. There were lots of things that could have been done.

But in some ways what I have just written confirms Stoehr’s overall point: there were things that Obama could have done, or tried to do. But Sanders and Frank appear ignorant of them…

April 25, 2016


Brad DeLong
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