Republicans have gone all-in on their “redistributionist” attack on President Obama, which will work about as well as the last time they tried it, in 2008 with Joe the Plumber. If anything, it will reinforce the desire to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a popular policy.
Before they pulled out a quote from 1998, Republicans seized on a comment from Obama’s interview this week with David Letterman. When asked the size of the national debt, Obama couldn’t come up with the figure. (It’s just over $16 trillion, though that includes money the government owes itself. Excluding that, it’s around $11.2 trillion.)
This dissipated quickly, as the idea that not knowing an arbitrary number is disqualifying probably strikes most people as silly. But as Joe Weisenthal points out in an excellent post, the problem was not that part of the comment but what Obama said afterward.
But actually his followup was worse: We don’t have to worry about it short term. But it is a problem long-term and even medium-term.”
Obama’s problem has always been his readiness to concede the deficit “problem” to his opponents [...]
But the US has one crisis right now: unemployment.
Imagine if a fire was raging at a hotel in Las Vegas, and the fire department was about to start hosing it down, and someone started talking about how Las Vegas faced a water sustainability problem, so we shouldn’t put out the fire. Everyone would rightly look at that person like a moron. Conceding that they kind of had a point is insane.
Not that the American Jobs Act was ever going to pass, but one central difficulty came in explaining to the public that, after nearly two years of preaching the virtues of austerity, the time had come for short-term spending to create jobs. The American Jobs Act was actually paid for over a ten-year period while spending out in the first two years, but it was easily described by the opposition as a policy that would usher in “an orgy of spending that we can’t afford.” And the guy who proposed the bill was the same guy who over the preceding 18 months would constantly discuss the need to “get our fiscal house in order.”
Sometimes rhetoric does matter. And dropping the rhetoric around Keynesianism made it hard to come back and argue in favor of it down the road. It’s going to make it really hard during the next recession, too.
It’s also true that Obama accepts a debt crisis frame because he legitimately believes that we have a debt crisis, even in the medium term. The fact that Treasury debt still goes at a negative real interest rate cuts against this idea.