10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
T. A. Venegas
- Published on Amazon.com
Here's my review of The Escape Artists, which I think does a good job of delving into the personalities of the principals, but seems to fall into the trap of assuming the president has more power than he does.
Noam Scheiber is a regular writer for The New Republic. He researched the tremendously readable The Escape Artists, which is an insider look at the Obama Administration's dealings with the economy. He weaves a beautiful narrative that focuses on the personal and institutional biases of many of the players within the administration, including Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Christina Romer, and Obama himself. I recommend the book to all readers of this post, especially because it tries to counter the self serving spin that we get from any president. However, many of the criticisms that Scheiber levels at the president just don't pass muster logically.
Scheiber credits the president with averting economic disaster (and that credit should also be shared with George Bush, who stepped away from his ideology to sign the TARP program), but Scheiber believes that the economy would have improved with more liberal policy prescriptions, which would have also put the president in a position of political strength in the present. Scheiber theorizes that the use of the president's power of persuasion, or "the bully pulpit," would have put the American public on his side and forced Congress along for the ride. Scheiber also faults Obama for listening more to his more centrist advisers, like Summers and Geithner, and less to more liberal members of his staff, like Romer.
Scheiber first discusses the stimulus, and how Romer believed it was too small. If only Obama would have listened to Romer, or if Summers would not have taken her larger option off the table, then the country would be in a better position. But Scheiber's own research flies in the face of this conclusion. Romer believed that the stimulus needed to be $1.8 trillion in order to close the gap in the economy where private spending has fled. However, in the early meetings, she said, "I think this needs to be at least $800 billion." She later told Summers that that the $1.8 trillion number was the best option, but Summers thought that was politically impossible, so she settled on a compromise of $1.2 trillion. Summers struck that numbers from the proposals list to Obama, settling on either 600 billion or 800 billion. Scheiber himself says that she protested at first, but because she did not have much Washington experience, she deferred to Summers on political questions. Scheiber believes that by not setting the bar higher for negotiation that Obama lost out on the possibility of more stimulus. He also postulates that tax cuts do not has as stimulative an effect on the economy, and they should not have been in the package because the Republicans were not going to vote for it anyway and therefore would not be lured. As a result, Scheiber blames Summers for not presenting the more expensive proposal, and Obama for choosing Summers to be a high level economic adviser.
Although we cannot know for sure that Scheiber is wrong, what happened next flies in the face of his assertions. The stimulus didn't receive a single Republican vote in the House, but needed Senate Republican votes to avoid failure. After swelling to 920 billion dollars due to the adding of pet projects that were necessary to get individual votes from Democrats, the Republican Senators on the fence demanded it be cut down to...800 billion. Even conservative Democrat Ben Nelson demanded the cuts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi demanded a vote on the 920 billion dollar package, but Harry Reid declined because he didn't think he had the votes. Don't these facts vindicate Summers' thought process? Could Reid have chanced a vote that, if it failed, would have caused another stock market tumble and hurt the president politically in his first month in office?
Scheiber's solution for that? Barnstorming by Obama in the first months of office, as George W Bush did for his first tax cut. First of all, most political scientists believe that idea of a bully pulpit is a myth. Second of all, the economy wasn't collapsing around Bush when he was campaigning for his tax cut, and the tax cut wasn't viewed as necessary to pull the country away from economic abyss. Obama didn't have a couple of months to pass stimulus. Scheiber ignores that about a week and a half before Obama signed the stimulus bill, a government report stated that the country lost almost 600,000 jobs in January of 2009. Does Scheiber think that if the January jobs report would not sway Nelson, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe from their position of a smaller package, that campaigning in their states in his first month of office would? That seems like a ridiculous notion.
Scheiber also offers that Obama should have passed the stimulus plan under the reconciliation option, which would have required only 51 Senate votes. But how would it look politically for the president who campaigned on a more bipartisan politics to use a partisan manuever to pass the first bill he signed? That would have removed the very thing that many independents to this day like about Obama...that he is willing to compromise with the opposition.
Scheiber also talks about the diversion of the health care reform battle and how it sucked oxygen away from the economy. I think this is a fair point, but that only leads to other questions. Was there any political will in Congress for more stimulus, especially since the public believed that the original one was large but wasn't working? If Obama waited on health care reform, would he have had the chance to pass anything, knowing that he would not have a filibuster proof majority after the midterms? Was health care reform worth prioritizing over more stimulus because the former was politically possible and the latter was not, especially with the GOP turning up the rhetoric on deficits?
Once the GOP won control of the House and grabbed Senate seats in 2010, Scheiber argues that they were intransigent because of Tea Party influence. I happen to agree with that. But in the same book, he argues that Obama should have used the bully pulpit to batter Republicans over the deficit ceiling issue, explaining that jobs were a more important issue, and also on the Bush tax cuts. Either the other side is intransigent, or it can be swayed...not both, and Obama was not willing to resist cataclysm when many members of the House were willing to let the deadline pass. Scheiber even at one point in the book states that the president took the bully pulpit on health care, and it passed, trying to prove that if he would do the same on other issues, it would work. That ignores the fact that after he spoke out for health care reform in many ways, the GOP practices relentless demagoguing, the president was forced to pass the bill through reconciliation, and that to this day, the bill is unpopular in polls, which shows how little the bully pulpit means. It also ignores that Obama has repeatedly tried to use the bully pulpit both for job creation and on the Bush tax cuts, but to no avail. Why hasn't it worked? Because the other side is intransigent, as Scheiber rightfully states. It seems like Scheiber tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to analysis on what the president should have done.
In all my reading on presidents, I have come to the conclusion that, more often than not, events control the presidency rather than the other way around. Events change minds, not speeches. Politicians often make mistakes, but when it comes to dealing with Congress, whether it is controlled by allies or adversaries, it is not often that tactical changes will get an executive to the desired result.