Michael Lind: Obama is a better foreign-policy president than domestic-policy president. Unfortunately, so was Jimmy Carter. Time to be bold.

Roundup: Media's Take

Two presidents for the price of one? That was the joke when Bill and Hillary Clinton made their respective presidential bids. In the case of Barack Obama's victorious quest for the presidency, the joke became reality. There are two Obamas. One is the foreign policy president whom America needs at this moment in history. The other is a domestic policy president who has yet to find his way.

In foreign policy, Obama is just the president the U.S. required after eight disastrous years of George W. Bush. In a remarkably short period of time, the president has done much to revive the reputation of the U.S. among its allies and enemies alike. No American president since John F. Kennedy has combined charisma with the ability to inspire people around the world with visions like Obama's call for the ultimate eradication of nuclear weapons.

And talk has been joined with action. Quietly and undramatically, but thoroughly and systematically, the president has repudiated one Bush-era policy after another. The Bush administration was arrogant and unilateral. The Obama administration is modest and multilateral. The new president has signaled a willingness to engage Iran, partly lifted the ban on the travel of Americans to Cuba and, to the horror of the American right, has shaken hands with Hugo Chavez....

Then there's domestic Obama. In economic policy, Obama has been as uncertain as he has been successful in foreign policy. His fundamental error was to place National Economic Council director Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in charge of the U.S. economic recovery effort. Geithner's credibility was damaged by his failure to pay taxes, while revelations about what Summers earned from the hedge fund D.E. Shaw and Goldman Sachs struck many as proof that Obama's team has been subject to what the economist Joe Stiglitz calls "regulatory capture" by Wall Street. The problem is not so much corruption as groupthink. It was never realistic to think that an individual like Summers, who spent much of his adult career supporting the discredited establishment consensus regarding financial regulation and trade, could think outside of a box he helped to build, even if he hadn't been paid handsomely by some of the architects of global economic disaster. And yet Obama, relying on Summers and Geithner, has failed to seek counsel from economists and other experts with alternative views.

The assertion that domestic Obama is too cautious, incrementalist and deferential to experts like Summers and Geithner may seem strange, in light of Republican claims that the president is a revolutionary trying to impose European-style socialism on America. Isn't his budget full of bold, sweeping initiatives with respect to energy, healthcare and education? As Talullah Bankhead said on leaving an avant-garde play, "There is less in this than meets the eye." Many of the president's initiatives combine grand visions with proposed changes or appropriations that are best described by the technical social science terms "piddly" and "dinky."

According to progressive economists as diverse as James K. Galbraith and Paul Krugman, the stimulus itself may have been much too small. Obama's grand vision of high-speed rail, on close examination, turned out to be a combination of an old, familiar map of proposed routes with relatively small-scale funding. Other, genuinely big initiatives like a comprehensive cap-and-trade scheme are likely to die in Congress. A cynic might wonder whether the smart people in the administration know this and are treating mere official proposals that fail to go anywhere as sufficient payoffs to important Democratic constituencies like environmentalists....

comments powered by Disqus