Paul Krugman’s Feigned Sense of Shock and Surprise

21 08 2009

In his most recent column, Paul Krugman argues that the White House should not be “shocked and surprise” that the liberal base would be angered and feel betrayed by any signals that it would be less than fully committed to a public plan option in health care reform legislation. Like many on the left, the Princeton professor believes that the administration’s yearning to work with an intransigent group of Republicans will only spell defeat for any expansive health care bill.

But Krugman’s disappointment with President Obama goes beyond just health care reform. Behind the thinly veiled snark and condescension you can tell he was ready to write this column for some time.

Though he apparently saw no need to neither quote nor cite any one in particular when he claimed, “A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months,” Krugman felt confident that he was speaking on behalf of millions.

Of course, there are several people Krugman could point to that have been skeptical of Obama’s approach on issues ranging from health care to executive power to stemming the foreclosure crisis. Single-payer supporting liberals, thee ACLU, and a variety of consumer groups can easily provide the kind of ammunition for sharp criticism Krugman is alluding to, but honestly its not necessary about any of those specific policies for Krugman. He has a problem with President Obama’s approach to governing period.

“The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it’s also a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach,” said Krugman in his column today. “It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled.”

As everyone observed during the campaign, Obama is much more communitarian politician who wants to persuade and cajole. He is not confrontational and populist figure. That does not sit well with Krugman who always wanted an candidate in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that is someone who does not shy away from his own instincts for governmental intervention and eagerness to bend Congress to his will.

To be sure, Krugman does raise an interesting question about how one should deal with an implacable opposition whose sole purpose is to obstruct any plan the president endorses. It also does seem odd that the president would single out Senator Chuck Grassely of Iowa when he is one of the main culprits out there propagating this myth that a House bill floating in Congress contains a provision that will pull the plug on grandma. At the same time, however, Krugman conveniently sides steps the other question about how one should deal with conservative Democrats and implacable Republicans in a fiercely divided Congress.

Consider the following: The stimulus passed with little support from Republicans in the Senate and a not insignificant amount of Democrats voting against it in the House. The House cleared a climate change bill by a measly 7 votes even though Democrats have a 78 member majority in that chamber. Congress also neither appropriated funding for shutting down Gitmo and adamantly rejected any proposal that invovled housing detainees at any of the supermax prisons on the mainland.

Even passing legislation that would have granted bankruptcy judges the mere discretion – not mandate, but the option  – of reducing the principal and interest on certain mortgage loans that need to be restructured  proved to be a challenging feat. The measure – which could have prevented nearly one million Americans from losing their homes – got a pitiful 45 votes which is far short of the 60 need to overcome a procedural motion known as cloture and send it to the floor for a final vote.

In other words, Congress a body has been terriby unhelpful to the president at the very moment when we need them the most. But somehow its all Obama’s fault. I am not saying the administration is or should be  immune from criticism nor am I suggesting the push for health care could not have been handeled differently. After all, the president did urge all of us to hold him accountable. But that does not mean we should not lose sight of the wider political context and environoment that has contributed to frustrating the president’s agenda.

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