Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Moderates of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the rest of your 401(k)s

Obama on the market: "It bobs up and down day to day."

At his meeting Tuesday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, President Obama said he was not focused on "the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market, but the long-term ability for the United States and the entire world economy to regain its footing."

That's more than fair. We all hope that he has no higher priority or demand on his time now than to get the economy moving back up again. The trouble is that a rising chorus of moderate and pragmatic voices -- not just the expected conservative opponents of whatever liberal Democrats want to do -- think Obama is not putting the economic turnaround first and foremost. Rather, he's pushing a sweeping long-term Democratic Party agenda under the guise of "stimulus" or economic recovery measures.

As I posted earlier, former Tennessee Congressman and Chairman of the centrist New Democratic Coalition Harold Ford has already raised questions about the lack of "certainty" in policies emanating from the White House and the Treasury. On Tuesday, New York Times columnist David Brooks, who describes himself as a moderate conservative but has been slammed lately by conservatives as a sell-out for the support he's given Obama, issued what he called a "Moderate Manifesto" (something of an oxymoron) that expresses disappointment with key Obama moves and contains a lot of good sense for all centrist-minded people of either or neither party:

You wouldn’t know it some days, but there are moderates in this country — moderate conservatives, moderate liberals, just plain moderates. We sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.

But the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.

So programs are piled on top of each other and we wind up with a gargantuan $3.6 trillion budget. We end up with deficits that, when considered realistically, are $1 trillion a year and stretch as far as the eye can see. We end up with an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new.

Those of us who consider ourselves moderates — moderate-conservative, in my case — are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was. His words are responsible; his character is inspiring. But his actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice. As Clive Crook, an Obama admirer, wrote in The Financial Times, the Obama budget “contains no trace of compromise. It makes no gesture, however small, however costless to its larger agenda, of a bipartisan approach to the great questions it addresses. It is a liberal’s dream of a new New Deal.”

Moderates now find themselves betwixt and between. On the left, there is a president who appears to be, as Crook says, “a conviction politician, a bold progressive liberal.” On the right, there are the Rush Limbaugh brigades. The only thing more scary than Obama’s experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it.

Brooks isn't the only moderate who has noticed that the President's course has veered sharply away from aggressive actions to revive the economy -- which would require serious bi-partisan cooperation to forge consensus -- toward other meritorious initiatives that can wait and might actually interfere with economic recovery.

David Gergen, for example, writes "as the economy continues its downward plunge, the question arises: in trying to do so many big things at once, is [Obama] putting economic hopes at growing risk?

Gergen sympathizes with the eagerness of the President's team "to seize upon this crisis to reshape the overall landscape" and supports their goals for health care, energy and education reforms. But he warns about Obama's "damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead" approach, noting that "there is growing reason to question whether this is the wisest course in terms of our most urgent and pressing challenge: a collapsing world economy." He concludes, "In the midst of this economic crisis, the number one, urgent priority for the country is to stop the bleeding. Once the patient is stabilized, we can go on to perform other, vital surgery."

My sentiments exactly. Anything that does not directly and promptly help stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient is not a priority and can be put off, at least for a while.

Moreover, Obama and his team simply can't shrug off the ongoing stock market plunge. There are many reasons why the markets have dropped precipitously since last fall. But there is little doubt that, as Obama's team has put on place a doubtful "stimulus" program, temporized about the critically important process of financial stabilization, and proposed a budget containing plans that reward imprudence and punish responsibility, investors of all kinds and sizes are losing what confidence they had that a recovery would happen anytime in the foreseeable future. Even some of his strong supporters are questioning his direction of economic policy, as this report indicates.

Obama is on his way to getting many things right. In particular, he has (so far) taken a decidedly centrist tack in foreign and national security affairs that I support wholeheartedly. On econonomic policy, however, it's getting difficult to for centrists and moderates to stay on board uncritically.

What's your opinion? Post a comment.

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