Deficits R Us
I have been fairly blasé up to now about the prospects of anyone defeating Obama in 2012. And considering the motley offerings of the Republicans, it is still a long shot. But these new numbers showing increasing pessimism spell trouble. If Morning in America doesn't kick in soon, it's not going to break in time.
John Judis has written an interesting piece in TNR that correctly diagnoses the problem: deficit fever. By adopting their "deficits are a crisis" frame, he's reinforced the idea that the economic downturn isn't going away any time soon --- indeed, it goes on as far as the eye can see. Let's just say all this talk of SS going broke and Medicare falling apart and deficits causing job loss isn't exactly a stirring message.
And, as Judis points out, this deficit fever has been explicitly flogged by the right in the wake of the election and its worked like a charm:
[F]or the last five months, Republicans have been harping on deficits as the cause of the economic downturn and continuing unemployment. The economy and jobs are still voters’ top concern, but in the latest Gallup poll, deficits and spending come in second. That’s not because the Congressional Budget Office suddenly found a river of red ink, or because interest rates shot up, or because the unemployment rate has gone up. It’s because Republicans have advanced the deficit as the reason for the problems in economy and jobs. They filled in the gap between fact and perception with the idea that things are getting worse and that the reason they are getting worse is because of the deficits.
I am not sure exactly why Republicans have focused on deficits. I suspect it is a combination of reasons. Some of them don’t understand modern economics; many of them want to use the peril of the deficit to justify cuts in government spending on social programs; and some of them, perhaps, want to arrest the recovery to improve their election chances in 2012. But the effect is to nullify Democrats’ ability to offer popular programs that will fuel growth, save jobs, and reduce people’s insecurity.
Obama has, sadly, bought the Republican argument for why the economy is in trouble. This week, he went to a community college in Northern Virginia to rally students there to the cause of the deficit. Here’s my expurgated version:
For a long time, Washington acted like deficits didn't matter. … And as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. … Now, if we don't close this deficit, now that the economy has begun to grow again, if we keep on spending more than we take in, it's going to cause serious damage to our economy.
Obama has tried to carve a liberal niche within this retrograde political framework by charging that the Republican plan to cut the deficit would get rid of Medicare and would keep the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s all well and good, but Obama is still playing on Republican turf. And it might not work. The last Democratic presidential candidate who based his campaign on deficits was Walter Mondale in 1984.
Many of us have been talking about this for months, worried greatly that the Democrats are not only failing on the politics, but failing on the substance, which is truly catastrophic. People are hurting and they need good policy right now and they just aren't getting it, largely because there's no room to maneuver in this hysterical deficit obsessed environment. I don't know why Democrats always think capitulating to the right's agenda (if not the details) will "take it off the table." It never does --- it only reinforces it.
Judis's whole article is worth reading. He's not terribly worried, but he's concerned enough to go on record. I hope the administration is listening.