Obama's Interview with David Leonhardt

This is a really remarkable interview.

But before I get to the interview, some 100 Days throat-clearing.

My basic and somewhat pessimistic take on the Obama presidency thus far has been that the presidency itself is a sprawling institution that has an odd and often misunderstood central mission — even though there is no sense in which the president can really manage and direct the economy, folk characterizations of the president’s role notwithstanding, the president is held accountable for the state of the economy. It is the accountability that actually matters. Decisions are made by bureaucrats and hundreds of millions of private actors, but someone has to be blamed: the buck has to stop somewhere. The president’s job is, in a sense, to be the object of blame, and, on rare occasions, of praise. Of course, the job has more than totemic significance. To tilt the balance of blame and praise, and of course to promote the general welfare, presidents intervene. Presidents draw on a variety of fairly crude levers to effect large-scale change, subject to democratic supervision that operates according to really short cycles.

Because of his intelligence and work ethic and (gently leftish) pragmatism, I can see how Obama might be better suited to this job than most plausible presidents. He suffers from a number of disadvantages relative to George H.W. Bush, who had extensive experience of the executive branch before coming into the office but he also has a number of advantages, including keen political judgment and considerable rhetorical gifts. All this suggests that Obama will do a fairly good job. And yet Obama also faces a series of overlapping, reverberating crises that will take a long time to disentangle.

Even if his program is the right one to pursue in every detail, and I’m pretty sure it’s not — actually, I’m pretty sure we’re making an extremely serious mistake by not allowing a much sharper recession and dispensing of various too-big-to-fail institutions through negative price bidding — it will run into the political calendar. There are at least two ways of thinking about this: (a) awareness of the political business cycle will undermine the integrity of “the program” or (b) “the program” will be disrupted by increasingly effective political opposition, and efforts to co-opt or blunt the opposition after the fact.

At the very least, the Leonhardt interview suggests that Obama understands the thorny landscape, and that’s saying a lot. My basic fear remains the same: I think we expect too much from government in general and from the president in particular. Still, it’s hard to argue that Obama doesn’t wear the mantle of “bearer of responsibility” fairly well.

I was going to parse Obama’s remarks more closely, but I’m thinking better of it. I was struck by his remarks on education and compensation, the broad conversation we need to have on healthcare, etc. But I think it’s best to parse these issues separately.