Ben Buchwalter

Don’t Let the Mandate Stale
January 9, 2009, 4:50 pm
Filed under: Barack Obama, Congress, Economy, Environment, Transportation | Tags: , , ,

Have you ever noticed how bread does not last long enough? You’ll buy a loaf, use four slices immediately, and then let it sit on the shelf for two weeks. By the time you try to use the remaining slices, its stale, or even worse, moldy. Well this loaf is a lot like Barack Obama’s political capital if it is not used quickly and correctly. In his first 100 days, President Obama could make delicious tuna and PB&J sandwiches. But recently it looks like he’ll let the bread mold grasping for bi-partisanship.

It’s clear that Obama’s economic stimulus plan doesn’t cut the mustard. By trying to get 80 votes in the Senate, he risks losing too much trying to appease Republicans. Obama doesn’t have to do this. The stimulus plan will pass easily with the 59 Democrats and a handful of moderate Republican Senators who support it.

But Obama is making good on the promise to be the President for everyone, not just liberals. While this is a laudable goal, Obama risks wasting his mandate even before his first term begins. When you have political capital, use it to make big advances on important issues, not to grab 15 unnecessary votes that will only weaken a desperately needed economic stimulus plan.

Obama’s popularity complex worries John Judas, too. He is concerned that “the president elect is underestimating the problem he and the country faces.” Judis calls for a much more extensive stimulus plan that includes funds to increase high speed public transportation. The closest equivalent we have to Europe’s impressive example is Amtrak’s Acela line, which is limited largely to the northeast corner of the country and is very expensive. But the extension of high speed transit would require a massive investment, which Congress has not even come close to supporting. 

Judas continues:

Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts–the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods–the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country’s trade balance. That doesn’t just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies–if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the “green jobs” that Obama often touts.

In short, its worth the investment. Krugman agrees. $800 Billion is a lot of money, but if it funds an incomplete and insufficient plan, then it is wasted. I’d rather see a more expensive stimulus plan that serves as the final word and gets us back on track. We can kill two birds with one giant, expensive stone. Build a much-need U.S. high-speed transit system and stimulate the economy. This is possible without pandering to Senate Republicans.

Congressional Democrats are rightly frustrated by Obama’s concessions, and they are not afraid to show it. The stimulus issue was the final and most important disappointment in a week of Democratic division which included the Blago/Burris Illinios scandal, the Panetta/Fienstein miscommunication, and the choice of TV star Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. 

Obama is the President of all Americans, red, blue, and purple. But he won a huge mandate in November’s election, supported by large majorities in the House and Senate. Obama needs to use that advantage to pass a working stimulus plan, even if it squeaks by with 61 votes.

Otherwise, he’s wasting perfectly good bread. 


2 Comments so far
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The fundamental misconception here is that President Obama, in fact, HAS a mandate. Seemingly everyone but President Obama himself thinks so. I think his approach is in light of the recognition that his fate is not tied to that of the Democrats nor was his victory so overwhelming as to indicate a mandate (Andrew Gelman at Columbia University convincingly indicates that the shift had to do, in order of importance, with the following three factors: the failing economy, Obama’s presonality, and the failure of the Republican brand For all of the punditry about how this was an “issues” campaign, the truth is that right before the economic collapse John McCain was actually LEADING in the polls. There is no mandate for President Obama, but, unlike President Bush (who also did not have a mandate after 2004), Obama knows it and is acting accordingly.
By extension, this means the bipartisanship is not some ploy: it’s a legitimate political tactic meant to form a lasting coalition of people who support Obama’s positions, not those of Democrats (who in recent days are showing how partisan and egomaniacal they really are). Typical Obama-smarts if you ask me.

Comment by John

John, thanks for your comment. I hope you’re right that Obama’s economic stimulus plan represents “obama-smarts” and will “form a lasting coalition of people who support Obama’s positions.” But a lot of Democrats and left-leaning economists, including Nobel Prize winning Paul Krugman, are saying that this plan is not nearly large enough to overcome our economic crisis. I agree that there is virtue to bi-partisanship. But only if it makes a policy better or if it is genuine and enables both sides to share the credit or blame for a successful or failed policy.

The fact is that Obama will be judged by his ability (or inability) to revive the economy. And even if twenty-or-so Republicans support an insufficient economic stimulus plan, it will be Obama’s. So four years down the road, if the plan fails because it was not big enough, public opinion will remember it as Obama’s failure to do anything with the economy. He will fall on the sward, not the 80 Senators who voted for it.

I’d be thrilled if an inexpensive plan did what it needed to do to revive the economy. And I don’t know enough about economics to say myself whether or not the plan is big enough. But some pretty trustworthy people are saying that its not. And if Obama bends to conservative pressure to keep the plan small and it fails, then he won’t be remembered for his courageous bi-partisanship four years down the line. Republicans will fault his inability to do what was needed.

One more thing. Obama absolutely has a mandate. And he knows it. He was elected by a large margin saying that he would promote progressive policies like reforming health care, raising taxes on the wealthy, and bringing the troops home. So it is the responsibility of Democrats in Congress to make good on those promises.

Comment by Ben

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