Understanding the Sad Possible

He may be becoming every Republican’s favorite Republican – because somehow FDR created the Great Depression – or so it has become fashionable on that side of things to say now – but it is wise to remember that Herbert Hoover won the White House in 1928 with the help of the first really effective campaign slogan – “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

That was a bold promise, unless you got the nouns mixed up and worried about that chicken in your garage where the car should be. But basically Hoover promised that were you to elect him it would be good times all around. It was the usual thing – let’s get the government to stop doing things and unleash the unregulated Free Market and the power of the magical Invisible Hand and we’ll all get what we want, and be well-fed.

It worked. And the next year the market crashed and there was a decade of the worst misery the country has ever seen – no chicken for you, and you probably didn’t have a pot anymore anyway, and you certainly had no car. And you certainly had no garage. The bank took that when they took your house. But the slogan worked. Hoover was president for a time.

And now that odd wild-eyed woman who would be president, Michele Bachmann, has said that under President Bachmann the price of gasoline would be two dollars a gallon or less, immediately. Joe Romm runs down all the experts saying that the only way that would happen is if we went back into a deep recession, actually a much deeper recession. And maybe that’s the implicit idea here. But no, she didn’t say that is how we’d get to gas at two dollars a gallon. She didn’t really say how we’d get there, other than the usual bit about getting the government entirely out of our lives. Perhaps the one magically leads to the other. But it was a chicken-in-every-pot moment. She pulled a Hoover.

And now Joe Romm offers a video clip – her rival, far behind in all the polls, Jon Huntsman, on ABC’s This Week, just shaking his head:

I just don’t know what – what world that comment would come from, you know? We live in the real world. It’s grounded in reality. And gas prices just aren’t going to rebound like that… that is completely unrealistic. And, again, it’s talking about things that, you know, may pander to a particular group or sound good at the time, but it just simply is not founded in reality.

Yes, oil is a global commodity, subject to supply and demand issues involving China and India, and the price jumps on turmoil in Angola or wherever, and when the hedge-fund managers decide to hedge oil the price swings wildly, as it does when the algorithms of the automated flash-traders are aimed at oil futures and fifty million shares move back and forth every six nanoseconds as they pick up a fraction of a fraction of a cent of profit with each shift. The president has little to do with any of that. But she doesn’t care – “Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is doubling down on her vow to drive gasoline prices to less than $2 per gallon if she’s elected president.”

You see, presidents can do things, if they just do them. She can make gas two dollars a gallon. She’s amazed that Obama hasn’t done that. What’s his problem? He must hate ordinary Americans who want and need cheap gasoline. What else could it be? But then McCain said he would balance the budget and retire the nation’s debt in his first six weeks in office. No one could figure how he could do that, but no one questioned him about that. He had been a war hero after all, or at least he was a pleasant fellow. He had spent many years making sure the press – all of them – liked him. They didn’t ask questions. Bachmann has a lot to learn there.

But there is a problem here, and it’s not really that the press doesn’t ask questions about just how you plan to do what you say you will do first thing. The problem is one step under that. The problem is in what we think any president can actually do. In fact, Gene Healy has written about what he calls The Cult of the Presidency:

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the “commander in chief” as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

Healy covers our history and American political theory, as it was actually written down. The founders intended no such thing. And things aren’t structured that way. Policy and law originates in Congress. The president faithfully executes that law. At least that was the general idea. And now Jonathan Chait is saying that how we think about the president, and what we imagine he can do, is really messed up:

It is a pervasive mentality that views the president as a kind of national father, responsible for everything that goes well or ill. The fallacies of the mentality are that it fails, first, to distinguish problems that are amenable to political solution from those that are not, and second, that it fails to recognize even within the political realm that the presidency is but one co-equal branch of government.

And what sets Chait off this time is something that appeared in the Sunday New York Times – If I Were President… – “We’ve heard from the media and from experts – incessantly. What if we entered a pundit-free zone?”

Yes, the Times asks some big guns – wealthy and accomplished American professors and poets and business folks and whatnot – who are not political junkies or policy wonks – just what they would do if they were president. Consider it Amazing Adventure in the Subjunctive Mood. Or if you’re really not into semantic theory, call it nonsense, or as Chait calls it, an anthropologically perfect sample of the cult of the presidency:

The feature asks a series of leading lights to outline their vision for the country. But the entire concept makes no distinction between the notion of “if I were president” and “if I were king.” If you were the president, of course, you would need a course of action that could be accomplished either through an executive order or that could be passed through both the House and Senate. The proposals generally make no allowance whatsoever for Congress.

And here are some of them:

I would invest in an infrastructure for civic renewal – not just roads and bridges, but schools, transit, playgrounds, parks, community centers, health clinics, libraries and national service. This would put people to work. And it would draw us out of our skyboxes and into the common spaces of democratic citizenship. …

I’d grant the very rich the boon of helping them help others, as a form of gratitude for their good fortune. I’d also connect every creative writing program with a hospital, a school, a library, a prison, a neighborhood center…

I would focus entirely on achieving what I think most Americans want: a stable and productive economy; an environmentally viable planet; a humane, efficient government capable of educating its young and protecting its vulnerable members. Americans are less selfish than some of our politicians believe (projection may be a factor here!) and will respond with reason and resilience to passionate clarity. …

I would invest half of our defense budget in children, young people and in energy conservation.

I would expand the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps and grow both for the next 10 years. A benefit would be two years of free college for two years of service. I’d ask corporations to fund two years of college or a trade school for young women and men from homes stricken with poverty.

I would fund energy-saving improvements – insulation of houses, solar panels and replacement of inefficient furnaces for households making less than $30,000 a year and develop a sliding scale for those earning more than $30,000 a year. I would help small businesses retrofit their buildings.

I would require members of Congress to participate in a weeklong workshop on dialogue, negotiation and compromise before the next session. All sessions would begin with 10 minutes of silence.

You would, would you? Miss American contestants suggest world peace. But Chait adds this:

Note that the last item not only imagines that the president can bypass Congress, as most of the others do, but also that she could require Congress to attend dialogue workshops.

I’m sure the editors who created the feature and the contributors to it are aware of the separation of powers – they simply do not assimilate it into their conception of the presidency. Nor do any of them express even a tacit desire to alter our structure of government to replace it with parliamentary government, in which the majority party automatically assumes the capacity to impose its governing program. (I would favor that.) They instead seem to long for a monarch, and the longing is just as strong on the left as the right.

Yep, Bachmann wants to be Queen, even if that’s not actually the job. And on CNN, Fareed Zakaria already argued persuasively that there are advantages to altering our structure of government to replace it with a parliamentary system. There are real issues here. And maybe Obama, as he is not King, can’t really do much of anything.

Ezra Klein chimes in on that:

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which the past few years could have gone differently. I’ve even come up with a few. But none of them led to dramatically better outcomes today.

I can come up with scenarios in which President Obama accomplished somewhat less – perhaps by scaling back the health-care plan – and lost fewer seats in the midterm election. I can come up with scenarios in which the White House accomplished marginally more – perhaps by using the reconciliation process for an energy bill – but paid a greater political cost. I can come up with scenarios in which the stimulus was slightly more visible – perhaps it could have wiped out the payroll tax entirely — or slightly larger or included a long-term deficit reduction component.

But I’ve never been able to come up with a realistic scenario in which a lot more got done, the economy is in much better shape, and the president is dramatically more popular today.

Maybe Bachmann doesn’t really want this job:

Indeed, if you had taken me aside in 2008 and sketched out the first three years of Obama’s presidency, I would have thought you were being overoptimistic: an $800 billion stimulus package – recall that people were only talking in the $200-$300 billion range back then – followed by near-universal health-care reform, followed by financial regulation, followed by another stimulus (in the 2010 tax deal), followed by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” followed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the apparent ousting of Moammar Gaddafi? There was no way. And yet all that did get done. But the administration hasn’t able to get unemployment under control – perhaps it couldn’t have gotten unemployment under control – and so all of that has not been nearly enough.

Yes, Obama has a problem there. Can you create jobs without spending one cent on anything at all? All spending bills originate in the House, and this Republican House, with its large Tea Party contingent, will not authorize any spending at all. In fact, they will only pass spending cuts. If you want a bold plan to create jobs to pass the house, it must cost nothing at all, and involve shutting down as much of the government as possible. There’s not a thing Obama can do about this.

But Jon Walker at Firedoglake sees this in a different way:

I’ve found one of the saddest yet most common defenses of President Obama’s handling of his job to be the weird argument that it simply wasn’t possible for him to do a better job, or to do anything different from what he did.

It is often said that the optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds, while the pessimist fears that that is true. But Walker will have none of that:

This is truly a sad lack of imagination. The possibilities of what Obama could have done differently are endless.

Even with the constraints of Congress, Obama could have behaved radically different. I can’t be confident of the outcome, but Obama didn’t need health care reform right away, wasting a year on hopeless bipartisan compromise. Instead, he could have gone after the Recovery Act, remained focused on housing relief, debt relief, and promoted more jobs legislation. Obama had a lot of political capital at the time and significant majorities in Congress. He could likely have passed many small follow-up stimulative laws in 2009. Instead, he pivoted away from the economic crisis because he wrongly ignored those who warned the crisis was going to get worse.

Even if you believe Senate Republicans would have used the filibuster to stop every attempt at more stimulus, Obama could have used reconciliation to pass more stimulus measures with only 50 votes in the Senate. One example: is I wanted health care reform to have the Medicaid expansion start right away. If done right, that could have been an extra $50 billion of stimulus in 2010.

Most importantly though, Obama has not even fully used the power he has to take action without Congress. To begin with, he could have done something smart with the $30 billion for HAMP instead of allowing his administration to turn the program into a disaster. He could have used the Conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie to push for “own to rent” or aggressive mortgage modification. Similarly, Obama could have recess-appointed someone besides Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve and recess-appointed two other progressives to the empty seats on the board.

I can easily see many plausible ways Obama could have directly or indirectly gotten another few hundred billion of stimulus injected into the economy in 2009 and 2010.

Walker says it’s all in how you look at it:

The President of the United States is not all powerful, but a President whose party fully controls Congress with big majorities has power. To act like the President simply couldn’t have taken a different path that would have produced a very different outcome is silly. Let’s not act like the destiny of the most powerful man in Washington is practically pre-ordained.

And Big Tent Democrat adds this:

Here’s what’s weird to me about this – the continued argument against a straw man – the nonexistent argument that the President can do whatever he wants – ignores the fact that the President is the least relevant person in the country on domestic policy – except for everyone else.

Can a President do it by himself? Of course not. But a President can lead the conversation where he wants the policy discussion to go. Like say, deficit reduction. And he has been known to have some political power as well.

So Big Tent Democrat declares that at this point the discussion is just plain ridiculous.

And maybe it is. Hoover promised a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Michele Bachmann promises two-dollar gasoline. And Obama, the guy who has the job at the moment, gets done what he thinks can get done, given the rules and the current out-of-bounds lines and the nature of the various players in the game. The left may want him to score a touchdown, while the right might want to strike him out in three fastballs. But the game may be chess – or not actually a game at all. You do what you can do.

But it can be frustrating:

When President Obama jumped on the back nine of the celebrity-clogged Vineyard Golf Club course on Sunday, he ran into none other than Morgan Freeman, Oscar winner and Obama backer. Freeman, it turns out, was as free with advice for Obama as he was for Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

…the deeply wired Boston Globe, invaluable for Vineyard gossip, caught up with Freeman at an event later in the day. “What I wanted to tell him is to get pissed off, get fighting mad,” the actor told the paper. “But I know he won’t because he doesn’t think it’s politically smart.”

On Obama’s chances for reelection, Freeman added, “If I could vote for him 1,000 times, I would.”

“I think he’s been horribly sandbagged, and it makes me so angry,” he said.

Yeah, and if you were king… or president…

You do what you can do. And Hoover never did hand out any chickens to anyone. There were no chickens.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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