Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bait and Switch

Here's a good example of what is frustrating about politicians. It's the old bait and switch.

Yesterday President Obama pushed back against criticism of the stimulus bill, essentially erring on the side of increased government spending over tax cuts. "In the past few days I’ve heard criticisms of this plan that echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis –- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems," said the president, "that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive. ... I reject those theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."

Clearly, voters did react positively to Obama's change message. But the problem with his formulation is that, if the average consumer of news and political advertising remembers anything from Obama's campaign sound bites, it was the constantly repeated mantra that 95 percent of Americans would get a tax cut under his administration. If he made any campaign speeches promising to boost spending (over using tax cuts) to stimulate the economy, I don’t think they filtered out to too many media consumers. Obama basically ran, and ultimately won, on promises to cut taxes for the vast majority of people. The irony is that he defeated an opponent with a long and consistent history of supporting low taxes. But John McCain's message was so garbled that regular people couldn't be sure what he was promising to do.

Now, to be fair, the additional tax cuts Republicans are pressuring the president to support are for small businesses and not individuals. And, of course, the economic situation is more dire than it seemed even during most of the presidential campaign. And presidents are not obliged by any law to keep any or all their campaign promises anyway. My only gripe is that he is using the "I won" argument to justify something different than what many, if not most, people probably thought they were voting for. (People who pay close to attention to these things, on the other hand, will not have been surprised.) The irony is that, for all his talk of change, the stimulus plan not only promises more of what we had during the past eight years, i.e. running up the deficit, but does so on a more massive scale.

To the president's credit, he has not shown himself to be at all stubborn. When Canada and the European Union began whinging about the protectionism in the House version of the stimulus bill he supported, he adjusted his stance and began extolling the virtues of free trade. When he realized he had one too many tax evaders going into his cabinet (perhaps a negative editorial in The New York Times had something to do with it), he cut Tom Daschle loose and went on every TV network to take responsibility. This flexibility is either reassuring, mainly if you like his reversals, or worrying, if you are starting to think that he bends too easily out of a lack of serious personal convictions.

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