Obama's Mixed Message

I think Bruce Bartlett is right that Obama hasn't done a particularly compelling job of crafting a narrative akin to the Reagan or FDR lines:  they broke it, I'm going to fix it.  I mean, he says this, but he doesn't have an intuitively appealing framework of how their ideas went wrong.  But I think that he is wrong when he describes this as a simple failure to do what he could to pin it on the previous administration.  Obama is incredibly constrained by both what he has done, and what he wants to do.

Take the deficit. The three major components of the deficit worth talking about are, I think, the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and the stimulus and bailout measures that passed under Bush.

Here's the problem with Obama laying out, clearly adn specifically, why these things were a bad idea:

  • He intends to continue the majority of the deficit-busting tax cuts, or at least, campaigned on doing so
  • He is not going to say publicly that it was a bad idea to give seniors an expensive (and popular) new benefit
  • The various financial crisis boondoggles were passed by a Democratic congress which included one Barack Obama.  He cannot complain about them without indicting himself and his colleagues.

Reagan's greatest advantage may have been that he came out of the California governorship, not the Senate, and that his party did not control either house of Congress right before he entered office.  This gave him tremendous leeway to explain how everything was the fault of that tired old Democratic ideology.  I doubt that Barack Obama is failing to make these arguments because it hasn't occurred to him that it might be a good idea; he's failing to make them because doing so would hurt more than it would help.  Instead he's had to stick with vague indictments that sound more like carping than a coherent critique.