Obama’s Too-Busy Meme, Cont’d

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This morning, Matt Lauer continued the meme by asking Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer whether the president had “bitten off more than he could chew.” Romer responds here:

Most of the he’s too-busy meme has been absurd. But the always-smart Bill Galston, over at The New Republic, raises a more nuanced proposition here.

Galston notes that, unlike FDR, Obama doesn’t have the same clout in a more divided Congress and that FDR really did keep things focused on the economic emergency in his first months. Galston notes:

Roosevelt delayed most of the structural reforms that did not bear directly on the economic emergency. For example, he did not even propose a commission to consider social insurance until June of 1934. Social Security legislation was introduced six months later, in January 1935, and was not signed into law until August of that year, after the provisions relating to health care had been stripped out.

Roosevelt organized his first term around two principles that the Obama administration would do well to ponder. First, he kept his (and the country’s) attention firmly fixed on a single task: ending the crisis of confidence and restarting economic activity. While he was more sensitive than previous presidents to the links among seemingly disparate issues, these interconnections in his view did not warrant trying to move on all fronts at once. The people and the Congress had to be brought along with an agenda and a narrative that they could understand.

Fair enough, but I think there’s a response to that, too.

First, distraction is a two-way street. Congress is constantly deviating from the economic emergency to deal with other stuff. I watched a fulsome debate on the transportation of chimpanzees and other primates the other day on C-SPAN. The House was taking up a bill in the wake of that chimp attack. It’s not reasonable to focus just on one branch of government.

Second, Obama is talking about a lot of things but he’s not sending up a torrent of legislation. There was the stimulus bill but everyone agreed there needed to be some kind of stimulus. He’s encouraged Congress to come up with a health care plan but he hasn’t forced a bill on them to consider. And besides is health care really a distraction? The facts show that you can’t get entitlement reform or any control over future red ink without it. Why wait?

Third, Congress is a much bigger institution than it was in 1933 or even 1977, the other example the Galston cites. Staffs are bigger, there’s more capacity to deal with more issues. If we have more of a logjam these days, it’s owing to the partisan redrawing of districts, the culture of lobbying and so on but not an innate inability of Congress to handle more than a few things at a time.

As I said originally, if Obama suddenly decides to immerse himself in an obscure border dispute or something truly far afield, he ought to be called out on it. But green energy, health care, education, and other things he’s pursuing all seem germane to the economy. You can disagree with them individually but it’s hard to chide their relevance to the crisis at hand.

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