Obama and Holtz-Eakin II: Or How Will a New President Lower Expectations?
After I posted a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that, if he is elected president, Barack Obama should hire Doug Holz-Eakin to be his budget director, self-styled progressives have gone nuts. The Obamaites are up-in-arms because Holtz-Eakin happens to be John McCain's chief economic adviser. Could I have struck a nerve?
One blog, called econ4obama, accused me of “the stupidist idea of the day.” This was quite an allegation considering I made my modest proposal just as the Russians were invading Georgia. Ezra Klein used it as an opportunity to rip Holtz-Eakin for hypocrisy and worse.
The Left should stand down. There is no chance Obama is going to offer Holtz-Eakin the job or that he would take it. But my serious point is that a newly-elected President Obama would face a terrible problem of rising expectations on the Left.
Liberals have been wandering in the political wilderness since the Great Society. They never considered either Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter one of their own, so the Old Left has been waiting four decades for a president to respond to what they see as deep-seated national needs. As for the New Left, much of the liberal blogosphere was not yet born the last time Washington tackled issues such as poverty and health care with ambitious new programs. For them, activist government is literally history. Pent-up demand doesn't come close to describing the mood out there.
Now, the Left has placed all of its oft-dashed hopes for a resurgent government on Obama. But they've got two big problems. The first is that Obama's real views on much of this stuff are largely unknown. He sounds like a progressive—sometimes. But he also talks about a post-partisan Washington , an idea liberals loathe. It is our time, they say, and we will not be abandoned as we were by Clinton. I suspect that deep inside, they fear their infatuation with Obama is the triumph of hope over experience (as Dr. Johnson said about second marriages). That was why they were, let us say, a touch defensive about my Holtz-Eakin idea. Could Obama actually do it, they wonder?
The other problem is that Obama will not have the money he needs to pay for all of his campaign promises. This is not about expectations or priorities. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. He can't cut taxes for everyone making $250,000 or less (the new middle-class in Obama land) and, at the same time, expand government programs for health care, the environment, education, and infrastructure. There are just not enough rich people to tax or Chinese to borrow from.
The numbers just don't add up. And Obama will have no choice but to disappoint Ezra, econ4obama, and his other partisans. In 1993, Bob Rubin was Clinton's bad cop to the Democratic base. In 2009, Obama will have to find his own Rubin. It won't be Holtz-Eakin, but trust me, it will be someone.