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Backseat Driving Obama's Legislative Strategy

Brendan Nyhan has some worthy thoughts on the legislative strategy behind Obama's stimulus plan:

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the economy and other political fundamentals drive presidential elections. If the US gets caught in a Japan-style deflationary trap, it is extremely difficult to imagine Obama being re-elected. No amount of post-inauguration bipartisan goodwill will change that fact ... This worldview is consistent with the approach to the economy taken by Bill Clinton, who passed a deficit reduction plan on a difficult party-line vote during his first year in office. It hurt his party in the 1994 midterm elections but the booming economy helped him defeat Bob Dole by a substantial margin in 1996. (Of course, whether Clinton's plan helped drive the expansion is a matter for debate, but the administration certainly seemed to believe that it did.) In this case, the downside risk of inaction is far greater than 1993 and the consensus that government action could have a stimulative effect on the economy is far stronger. For those reasons, a fundamentals-driven approach would suggest maximizing the size and effectiveness of a stimulus package that can get 60 votes to defeat a Senate filibuster. The compromises necessary to get 80 votes seem likely to represent an unacceptable risk to the economy. ...

In other words, the Obama people think the marginal benefit of 15 or 20 extra Senate votes for future legislative initiatives is worth the marginal cost of a smaller and less effective stimulus. I couldn't disagree more. As Jimmy Carter should have told Obama during the ex-presidents' lunch last week, a president presiding over a weak economy has a tough time getting anything through Congress and an even tougher time getting re-elected.

A couple of points:

I'm not sure I completely buy the analogy to, say, Jimmy Carter. I'd guess we're looking at a situation more analogous to Hoover/FDR, wherein the collapse under Hoover was so precipitous that it discredited the GOP for years and FDR was essentially given points for effort (and for not being a Republican) in 1936, even though we were still in a depression. I'd guess Obama could win re-election if the economy's still struggling as long as it looks like we're headed in the right direction and he seems basically competent and engaged. On the other hand, you could argue that our collective patience is much, much lower these days (for a variety of reasons--media, affluence, etc.), so I'm not sure I'd bank on this if I were Obama.

Second, I think Brendan may be slightly undervaluing those extra 15 Senate votes (I doubt it's going to be 20), given the ambition of Obama's agenda. Health care reform is going to be incredibly important--both substantively, politically, and to Obama's legacy--and rancor built up during the stimulus debate could easily poison that process. So I see the logic of wanting the cushion.

Three, I'm hardly convinced a $1.5 trillion stimulus package, or whatever, could pass the Senate by any margin, so you have to wonder if there's any point in trying. (Or, at least, it's hard to begrudge team Obama for wondering this...)

Having said all that, I still come down on Brendan's side, in that I think Obama should maximize the size of the stimulus rather than the number of votes he can pass it with (subject to his $800 billion minimum). The economic scenarios we're looking at range from bad to terrifying. Beyond the economic and social benefits of avoiding the terrifying scenarios, you'd have to think the political payoffs outweigh everything I've just mentioned.

My point is just that, for Obama, it's a much closer call than you might think.

--Noam Scheiber