Shaping the future with today’s choices.
In a recent column, Paul Krugman argued that the real problem of the Obama Administration for the last two years was “a lack of audacity.” He went on to disagree completely with the view — which I have certainly expressed — that the Obama Administration had not been sufficiently focused on economic recovery. He derided the notion of “focus,” referring to it as cowardice. “The whole focus on ‘focus’ is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice — a way to criticize President Obama’s record without explaining what you would have done differently.” (I want to be clear that I am not implying in any way that Professor Krugman was referring to my blog. I cannot imagine that he read it.)
Let’s start with “audacious”. Here I agree with Professor Krugman. I agree now, as I did at the time, that the stimulus should have been larger (his major point). I also think that the financial crisis package should have been different. And I have no problem with Professor Krugman’s “Plan A” and “Plan B”: “Plan A the passage of a truly adequate economic plan, with Plan B being to place blame for the economy’s troubles on Republicans if they succeeded in blocking such a plan.”
But I want to focus on the notion of “focus.” In his deriding of the very concept of “focus”, Professor Krugman is, in my view, flat wrong. More interestingly, he is revealing an unfamiliarity with actual executive government that President Obama also demonstrated.
The job of legislators, columnists, and brilliant academic economists is to say things. Once you have given the speech, drafted the legislation, or written the column, you are mostly done. What more could you do, except say something else? So it is natural that you would think that having said whatever it is you want to say, you have finished. You are through. The idea of “focus” is meaningless. Professor Krugman suggests that critics may be saying that President Obama “should have walked around with furrowed brow muttering ‘I’m focused, I’m focused.'” While I like the image, my point is that President Obama should have done a lot more, not necessarily said much more.
Because the job of an executive is really different. After you say things, you have to do things. Actions have to occur. Others have to make decisions. Money has to be spent. Shovels have to move. And on and on. And the job of president is doubly different. Not only do you have to do things, you have to secure the support and understanding of a continental nation, with 300 million people and a short attention span. Not a single thing that follows after a president makes a hard decision happens naturally. Making anything happen is hard. Making a lot of things happen in the right sequence, and more or less the same direction requires, yes, “focus”.
Professor Krugman asserts that the “focus” advocates — intellectual cowards all — avoid “explaining what you would have done differently.” So let’s think about economic policy. After pretty good policy in the face of the worst crisis in 80 years, the Administration just had its head handed to it. The American people did not understand how much worse the economy could have been. The American people did not understand the difference between the TARP and the stimulus. The American people thought taking over Chrysler and GM were signs of Obama the Socialist. The American people did not know that within the stimulus was a substantial tax break for a lot of them. The American people thought matters would get better faster. The American people did not know what the way out could look like. The American people did not know the next steps in policy, nor the next. The American people probably did not feel that the President and his cabinet were using every possible minute to make things better.
The other side’s story won.
I don’t think it is genetic that the American people didn’t understand these issues. The world isn’t composed of geniuses at the White House and dummies everywhere else. Something did not happen. What? The White House did not focus on the incredibly hard task of conveying understanding to a big county at a hard time.
Specifically, what did not happen? The President never gave an overall speech on the economy. The American people were never given a clear sense of how bad things could get — softening the message by saying unemployment would top out at 8% was a big mistake, and clear at the time — and why the President’s program would make them better. I did not notice the 10 regional economic summits the President led — because, you’re right, he didn’t hold any. I didn’t see the cabinet and senior White House staff out every week, week after week, talking about the economy. I didn’t see a group of Congress people, even the other side, or of business people — imagine that — coming into the White House every day. I didn’t see the National Economic Council come up with a broad, convincing plan for the next few years.
So, specifically, I would have done those things.
What I did see was the entire White House move on to health care reform, and then to energy and climate. Whatever you think are the merits of these efforts, pursuing them clearly meant one thing — every second the President, the chief of staff, the political operation, the communications staff, and the National Economic Council spent on these issues was a second they did not spend on the President’s economic program.
So, specifically, I would not have moved on those issues.
All of this — an overall narrative, repeated speeches, regional summit meetings, cabinet trips and speeches, groups invited into the White House — will be dismissed as mere PR and “communications.” President Obama already has done so. These things are not what the smart people do. The smart people have ideas and then say them. The smart people don’t say things twice, or take boring trips to regional meetings, or talk to group after group after group, often groups that disagree with you.
But all of these things are what actual government and leadership is about. Every once in a while you get to do the soaring rhetoric thing, and I wish President Obama had done more of it, of course “focusing” on the economy. Every once in a while you get to be the brilliant White House economist with an idea no one else is smart enough to have. But most of the time, you had better be grinding away on all of the dull things. That is what actual high-level government service is, and that is what “focus” is.
But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we think things turned out just fine.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.