Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bob Herbert in the NYT--He's Right About Obama, But When Will He See Healthcare as the Next New Deal?

The New York Times' Bob Herbert is an earnest liberal. Eschewing sarcasm and irony--the most prized attributes of most columnists these days, at least within the hermetic circles of professional chatterers--he simply makes his case for domestic liberalism. And while he was on board with Obama for a long time, he has gotten off the train, lately. Take a look at his column this morning:

The talk inside the Beltway, that super-incestuous, egomaniacal, reality-free zone, is that President Obama and the Democrats have a messaging or public relations problem. We’re being told — and even worse, Mr. Obama and the Democrats are being told — that their narrative is not getting through. In other words, the wonderfulness of all that they’ve done is somehow not being recognized by the slow-to-catch-on masses.

But the real problem, Herbert says, is not "message," it's jobs:

The economy shed 36,000 jobs last month, and that was trumpeted in the press as good news. Well, after your house has burned down I suppose it’s good news that the flames may finally be flickering out. But once you realize that it will take 11 million or more new jobs to get us back to where we were when the recession began, you begin to understand that we’re not really making any headway at all.

Continuing, Herbert adds:

Instead of focusing with unwavering intensity on this increasingly tragic situation, making it their top domestic priority, President Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill have spent astonishing amounts of time and energy, and most of their political capital, on an obsessive quest to pass a health care bill.

Health care reform is important. But what the public has wanted and still badly needs above all else from Mr. Obama and the Democrats are bold efforts to put people back to work. A major employment rebound is the only real way to alleviate the deep economic anxiety that has gripped so many Americans. Unaddressed, that anxiety inevitably evolves into dread and then anger.

Herbert then wraps it up in a soundbite:"But while the nation is desperate for jobs, jobs, jobs, the Democrats have spent most of the Obama era chanting health care, health care, health care."

So we can see that Herbert is mindful of both "lobes" of contemporary liberalism--past and present. The past lobe is the New Deal lobe: If people need jobs, get 'em jobs. The present lobe is the Great Society: If people need services, provided by middle class professionals, get 'em services--even if they don't want the services. We can quickly grasp that the politics of the New Deal are a lot better than the politics of the Great Society; that's one reason why, for example, the New Deal Democrats won the White House in seven of nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1964, while beginning in 1968, they have lost seven of eleven presidential elections.

OK, so suppose Obama wanted to get off the "services" train, and on the "jobs" train? What would he do? Paradoxically, one place he could start would be healthcare. Healthcare is actually a great source of jobs--but not, of course, if you're trying to ration healthcare.

Meanwhile, the Obamans have take a different turn, they are now trashing the insurance companies. An interesting strategy, albeit not likely to help them get their bill through. However, insurance company bashing will give them some good attack lines as they increasingly resign themselves to "governing from below." That is, having lost the majority in Congress-at least anything like a working majority--the Democrats can now revert to being critics of the status quo. It worked in 2007, it might work in 2011. Of course, Obama will still be president, but if he is willing to go on the attack, against insurance companies, Wall Street, etc., it might work for him. It will surely work better than this.

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