Commentary Magazine


Better Hope the “Blame Bush” Part Works

Well, let’s give Alice Rivlin credit. The former head of the Congressional Budget Office confesses that the Obama stimulus package is really about keeping up appearances:

President-elect Barack Obama, asked how voters will be able to judge whether his economic package is helping, said it would create at least some jobs immediately by funding “shovel ready” construction projects. The Democrats could also get credit if they produce concrete results in areas such as providing mortgage relief or extending unemployment benefits.

Still, the political challenge is daunting, given that economists expect this recession to last for years. “The stimulus package will keep it from getting as bad as it would otherwise be, but that is very hard to measure,” said Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, who addressed House Democrats recently. “All you can say is, ‘It’s probably not as bad as it would have been.’ But that is very hard to prove.”
. . .

One aspect of the Democrats’ strategy is to stress that the recession was the Bush administration’s fault, not theirs. “President Bush will leave behind a legacy of debt, transforming the biggest surpluses in history into the biggest deficits and affecting our ability to confront the current economic crisis,” Rep. Hoyer’s office said recently.

Democrats also have begun speaking of the long term, emphasizing that their goal isn’t merely to end the downturn but also to change society and strengthen the economy for generations.

That may be a difficult point to make politically. But Democrats hope that voters understand the severity of this recession and don’t expect them to work miracles immediately.

They take some hope in that regard from the performance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to whom they are increasingly looking as a role model. Mr. Roosevelt didn’t rapidly end the Great Depression, but voters supported him because he seemed to care so deeply, taking aggressive action and trying everything at his disposal.

“I think people know this is a serious recession, and they don’t expect it to turn it around quickly,” Ms. Rivlin said. The Democrats “don’t have to produce a turnaround. But they have to produce action.”

So to be clear: this near-trillion dollar stimulus is more about pretending to do something than about doing it. The goal is to make sure it’s not the Democrats fault when the economy is insufficiently improved in two years. And they’re banking that George Bush will remain the perpetual fall guy if things don’t get better.

Maybe this will work. Perhaps the economy will get better on its own, while the stimulus package provides a political sideshow to keep the media occupied and impressed. And it is possible Bush will remain the bogey man for years to come. But I wouldn’t bank on it. Voters really expect President-elect Obama, after two years of high-flying rhetoric, to deliver. And Democrats may be overestimating their ability to redirect the public’s anger to the Bush era. Voters, I sense, are done with the Bush years, and won’t acceptthe invitation to return for another round of Bush-bashing. They want to move on, and they want improvement.

One wonders why, both as a political and economic matter, tax cuts don’t figure more prominently in the Democrats’ plans. A wide array of middle-class and business tax cuts would certainly take the wind out of the Republicans’ sails. And they might just work better than an $800 billion boondoggle of public works spending. For now, however, the Democrats seems wedded to a course that has no historical precedent for success (e.g. The New Deal, Japan in the 1990’s). And if, once again, we “discover” that government spending can’t create prosperity, there’s always George Bush to kick around. Quite a game plan.

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