Obamanomics as Political Vaporware

In politics, ambiguity, restraint and a lack of passionately held policy positions can be an advantage as the public wishfully projects their hopes and assumptions on to the candidate. Or it can simply mask the fact that the candidate has no well-thought out philosophy or basic command of the subject in question. This is great if it means the candidate is open to accepting well-considered “new thinking” but bad if the candidate simply picks up positions ad-hoc without really contemplating the downstream implications.

Senator Barack Obama’s recent sojurns in to trade policy on the campaign trail, which seem to be raw political appeals to rentier interests of the moment, are alarming economists generally associated with the Democratic Party ( Senator John McCain, the inevitable GOP nominee, isn’t any better informed on basic economics theory than is Obama – making 2008 a worrisome choice if the economy goes into the tank).

14 comments on this post.
  1. Galrahn:

    "making 2008 a worrisome choice if the economy goes into the tank"

    Agreed, its become a wash in terms of wits of economics among them which means it will come down to those around them, not the candidates themselves.

  2. zen:

    Agreed.  In 1981, Reagan had the Supply-siders and Volcker to fill in the dots. In 1993, Clinton had Bentsen, Rubin, Summers and Greenspan.  I’m not seeing anyone rising up to play that kind of role today.

  3. Dave Schuler:

    Reminds me a bit of the 1972 campaign with John Kenneth Galbraith, chief economic advisor to the McGovern campaign, apologizing for the positions being staked out by his candidate.

  4. Lexington Green:

    Scary crap.  Goofing around with the trade regime reminds me of Smoot Hawley and the 1930s beggar-thy-neighbor era.  We know where that led.

    Obama is playing with fire and is too arrogant and historically illiterate to understand that.

  5. Adrian:

    Apparently an Obama staffer (Goolsbee) told the Canadian Consulate in Chicago "don’t worry, Obama’s rhetoric on NAFTA is all BS."

    This is the best article I’ve read on Obama’s campaign so far.  Doesn’t deal with polls or rhetoric at all, just on his policy advisers, including University of Chicago economists.

  6. Joe blow:

    lol@the ignorance on this post. Zen not american here but i do read a bit. Obama is being advised by University of Chicago economists as Adrian pointed out in that article. In fact many of them are behavioral economists so you should be wetting your pants with glee with his unorthod0x approach.

  7. Eddie:

    Such criticism of Obama on this is terribly naive and misinformed.  How is he to win against the ultimate panderer (the Clinton team) other than by outperforming on that front? He can’t tell the truth because frankly, between the incompetence of the federal government in this regard (crappy job training programs, abysmal planning on preparing key industries for foreign competition as well as infrastructure & process improvement and investment) over the past 20 years and the miseducation of the American people on basic economics (by the media and both political parties) for even longer, he’s between a rock and a hard place.

    Look at what Romney did in Michigan, where he beat McCain soundly by promising the moon and the stars to the Michigan auto workers even though he obviously knew better. McCain told the truth (your jobs aren’t coming back and you need to go to school and/or job training programs to get something new that you could "potentially" make more money and be more successful in) and got creamed because of it. The American people don’t want to hear the truth, they want sweet fantasies and bullshit like the kind they’ve been fed for 16 years by the Clinton-Bush era, and before that in the Reagan era (you can have everything you want, don’t worry, there’s no consequences and we’ll always be the greatest just by cutting taxes, the government and corners wherever we can to make a profit, even if quality suffers).

    Obama is wise to pander to the masses and get into office where his economic team can begin to repair 20 odd years of mismanagement.   McCain’s economics team is a mish-mash of supply-siders and fervent free traders (who don’t see the sharks in the water on that issue both here and abroad) totally out of touch with the political and economic realities we live in right now and will continue to.

    We need real free trade, i.e. dropping the ag subsidies, investing in our workforce and freeing up certain government regulations and tax codes that prevent our businesses from streamlining and retrofitting to the extent they need to compete with others abroad.  You’re not going to get that if you’ve got a bunch of ninnies whose only response to economic and trade trouble is to pursue more hypocritical trade deals like CAFTA and cut taxes across the board.

    We should be hanging businessmen who use off-shore tax havens as traitors, not giving them more tax cuts like McCain wants to.

  8. zen:

    Adrian – thanks for the article. It was good.

    Joe Blow and Eddie

    Yes, I know who Austan Goolsby is – what FT.com was pointing out was that Obama has been sounding less like Austan Goolsby lately than Lou Dobbs. Obama is a cipher on vast swaths of policy so while the behavioral economics/Chicago School tie is heartwarming, the evidence that Obama has any firm convictions of his own in regard to econ policy is mighty thin.  If these speeches are tactical political "B.S.", I’ll be the first to cheer and give the man credit when the real policy is rolled out.  Until then, I have to go by what the candidate is promising that he will do.

  9. Eddie:

    He has loads and loads of policy proposals, papers and even legislative activities that are rarely reported on by the media or even noticed.  He’s not so much a cypher, the real question would be the influence of which kinds of advisers (Your failures like Anthony Lake and (hypothetically) John Edwards or guys like Tony Zinni & Goolsby). McCain has much the same problem though.  And he’s changed his positions on policies more times than most of us can count, often for little reason.

    Grand mysteries then the both of them are in a sense.  His tactics now are certainly tactical BS because sadly there is no other way for him to compete in areas of the country where globalization is considered (wrongly) a sin of some sort.  That is unless you have some other gimmick like Bush had in 2004 (bashing gays and waging war) or you flat out lie to people (Bill Clinton in 92).
      He learned that lesson from McCain in Michigan. You can’t be the Grinch to another candidate promising to be Santa Claus. 

  10. zen:

    Bob Dole had lots of position papers too.  :o)

    Eddie, I’m not beating a drum for McCain here, who like Obama is a likable or admirable character on a personal level (albeit for different reasons) and worrisome on a policy level – aside from the fact that McCain-Feingold makes him an agonizing nominee for me. McCain and Obama are certainly transitional figures for their respective political parties though many Democrats obviously hope Obama will be transformative as well.

    People are policy – to an extent. Be cautious here. There are, for example, one heck of a lot of former future secretaries of state running around out there who were FP gurus during a presidential campaign yet were mysteriously passed over for the actual job in favor of colorless and uninspiring retreads with key political connections. Or outsiders. Reagan true-believers woke up after the inaugural to find James A. Baker III, Mike Deaver and David Gergen running the White House operation and Al Haig at State while Reagan’s campaign guru Richard V. Allen was National security Adviser without any access to the President! 

    Goolsby being chief economist of the Obama campaign is a good sign but if Obama wins the election he won’t get anything better than OMB or Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers before sliding over to Treasury as deputy or to the Fed as a governor. Too many bigwigs will feel he hasn’t paid his dues to the party for a higher post right off the bat. DC is a small town and the ppl a president brings with him are regarded as interlopers.

  11. Eddie:

    Indeed.  Its frustrating because there is so much uncertainty about both candidates that regardless of what they say or do, it will certainly depend on who they bring with them and whose toes they’re willing to step on with certain staff decisions and omissions.

    Yikes.  Hopefully a good campaign though. 

    My point about McCain in Michigan vs. Obama in Ohio is colored perhaps by the way McCain went about telling the truth to the Michigan auto workers.  There’s a way to do it, and he seemed not to approach it from that angle.  Nevertheless, its something a lot of candidates and incumbents will keep in mind for a while. The myopia of the masses indeed. That’s the last thing we need right now, but it seems we’re stuck with it on a lot of issues.

    Thank you for the reminder of the Reagan presidency. An extremely useful example!

  12. Wolf Pangloss:

    My contribution wasn’t quite as deeply thought out as yours, but it’s a different way of saying the same thing.I had a dream about Barack Obama. I was watching Obama give a speech. It felt so good, so hypnotic. He was so beautiful and he spoke like an angel. I remember wondering if I was actually floating in the middle of the air. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are having a conversation of such surpassing brilliance and insight that you want to remember every single speck of memory from the dream so you can write it down when you do actually wake up? This was one of those dreams. Every idea, every word, every phrase, every syllable that came out of his mouth was so perfect, so absolutely appropriate and energizing, that I knew I was giggling and couldn’t help it. I was surrounded by thousands who were, like me, giggling, half-floating, transfixed by the wise one, Obama. When the speech was over everyone in the dream clapped and we all tossed our shouts of approval at the great man, like so much confetti at a ticker-tape-parade for returning war heroes. Obama smiled his wide smile and waved his kindly hand at us in a gesture of heart-felt affection, then left the stage. In my dream as I tried to write down the gist of his speech I couldn’t remember what he said. It was something like “Change, blah blah blah,” and “Yes we can, blah blah blah,” and “Not red states and blue states, but United States, blah blah blah.” Everything kind of floated away, all airy and insubstantial as is the way of all dreams. Then I dreamed that I had to use the restroom. I woke up. When I woke up, I was sitting in my armchair watching the end of an Obama speech on TV. I wasn’t asleep. And I hadn’t been dreaming. As I went to the restroom I still couldn’t remember what Obama had said. The rhetorical brilliance and insight, blah blah blah, disappeared with the last shreds of the dream that wasn’t a dream and then the hypnotic afterglow was flushed away to be gone forever. 

  13. Fabius Maximus:

    "He has loads and loads of policy proposals, papers and even legislative activities that are rarely reported on by the media or even noticed."

    Candidates policy proposals are typically written without much input by the candidate, by people who will not have a substantial role in the Administration.  Like the party platform, they are campaign documents only.  Sometimes they match later actions.  For example, Obama probably will partialy nationalize the health care system — as that is a key consensus policy of the Democratic Party.
    .
    The clear historical analogy to the Obama campaign is the 1976 Carter campaign, whom we elected as part of the Bicentenial festivities.  There is likely little similarity between the candidates, however.

  14. tdaxp » Blog Archive » Obama’s Cowardice and McCain’s Heroism on Globalization:

    […] shielded from competition.  Obama sympathizers, and the Canadian consulte, both have assumed that Obama is being two-faced, and that he will support America’s free-trade policy.  He is demagoging the subject, so the […]