In this open letter to Obama advisor David Axelrod, Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect and author of Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, offers his insights into what the president must do, and what the president must appear to be doing, in order to rally public opinion and force Congress to take further, and more drastic, measures to prevent another Great Depression.
From the Huffington Post:
President Obama faces two huge challenges in the next few months. One is dealing with the reality of an impending depression. It will take much stronger medicine to avert a depression than the measures taken to date, and the president needs to rally public opinion if he is to persuade Congress to act at the necessary scale.
The related challenge is about appearances — about whether middle America feels that the federal outlays are trickling down to regular people. So far, bankers seem to be getting too much and Main Street too little.
The two challenges are related. If the solutions are not bolder, they won’t cure the crisis. If the public isn’t persuaded of the need, Congress won’t act. If the economy keeps sinking, the people will lose confidence in the president’s leadership.
And if President Obama doesn’t boldly address both challenges, his presidency is in trouble. I take heart from some of the subtle shifts in the president’s positioning in recent weeks, but he needs to go farther, and move faster.
At the core of both problems is the sinking economy and the fact that he hired a team of orthodox economic advisers to fix it. A radical crisis requires radical solutions, but the economic team has been far behind the curve in the remedies it has put forward, both in the reality and the optics.
The Reality: To prevent a slide into depression, you will need to spend roughly another three trillion dollars of public money in order to pay for a second stimulus package (at least a trillion) and to recapitalize the banking system (as much as two trillion.) Neither Congress nor public opinion is remotely prepared for that action yet. No one but the president is capable of the kind leadership necessary to move public opinion in this direction, and Barack Obama is a better teacher than most presidents. But that money needs to be understood as practical help for ordinary American families, not as more bailout for the culprits who created the mess.
Faced with three trillion dollars in additional needs, the administration has only $350 billion at its disposal — the as yet unspent TARP funds. Right now, the administration seems to be trying to spend that money several times over — first as an equity guarantee to anchor more borrowing from the Federal Reserve as the core of Tim Geithner’s latest bank rescue; then as a source of public funds for the auto restructuring; and again as part of the plan to refinance mortgages and prevent foreclosures. This string is more than played out. There are limits, financially and politically, to the use of the Fed as all-purpose piggy-bank. At some point very soon, Congress needs to be brought back in, because your efforts require both Congressional support and a lot more real money. And Congress will only act if the people understand the stakes.
The political reality is that the economy needs to be on the mend by mid-2010, or the Democrats will lose seats in the mid-term election. But most informed observers think that if present trends continue, the economy will not be in recovery by Election Day 2010. If the Republicans eat into what is now a bare working Congressional majority, you will face legislative gridlock. And the perception of a weakened presidency will become a reality — portending even worse political news for the president’s re-election in 2012.
Right now, the president has enlisted some Republican governors like Charlie Crist urging diehard GOP legislators to back his program. That’s a trifecta. It splits the opposition party, reinforces the perception of Republican obstructionism in Congress, and vindicates the president’s bipartisan overtures. Well done! But this will last only as long as President Obama’s program seems to be working.