Is the Obama White House Serious About Policy?

Is the Obama White House Serious About Policy?

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The Hill reports that the Obama White House is divided over what position to take on the budget.  As John Amato, author of the blog Crooks and Liars, phrases it; the division is between “economic” and “political” advisers, or those whose priorities are fiscal and those whose number one concern is electoral.

Given that description, I guess we all know who the good guys and bad guys are.  We’re all supposed to believe that “politics” is bad and that paying attention to the budget is good.  But what puzzles me is the missing part of the White House: Policy.

What about the people who care about policy?  Who believes that the deficit is only one aspect of what the government does, and only one of many influences on the economy? 

The Republicans have plenty of people like that: those who believe, for example, that reducing deficits by raising taxes is a bad thing, because taxes are bad; or that government-provided medical insurance is inherently inefficient and diminishes individual responsibility, so should be cut or replaced regardless of the level of the deficit; or that most people should rely almost entirely on their own savings for retirement.  Republicans don’t assume that the “fiscal” aspect of policy and economics – the effect of government’s budget balance on aggregate demand – is anything like the only thing that matters.  Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan does very, very little about the deficit over the next ten years. But that’s not because “politics” has trumped “fiscal concerns.”  It’s because he believes in the policies he has proposed.

Are there any such people in the Obama White House?  Those who believe, for example, that somewhat larger deficits with solid social insurance programs are a better idea than smaller deficits without those programs?  Who believe that cutting spending may not do as much good for the economy as public investment could do?  Who believe that what matters about an economy is what kind of life it makes possible for average Americans, so that some taxes are better ideas than others, and some spending particularly necessary?

There might be, and those people might be arguing with other people who are more interested in deficit reduction than in how it is done.  There could be an argument not about “politics” versus “economics” but about what kind of economic policy makes sense; not about “political” versus “fiscal” emphases, but about the role of deficit reduction in trying to fix the economy.

Any White House should have advisers whose concern is mainly political, because presidents need to win support to do anything.  It also should have advisers who care a lot about the budget, which is why the Office of Management and Budget is part of the White House.

Yet we should hope that any White House also has a third dimension, people who know that policy involves more than the budget.  Does this White House have three dimensions?  Given the administration’s seeming disinterest in explaining its positions, sometimes it is a bit difficult to tell.  Yet President Obama has pursued policies, such as health care reform and energy initiatives, which suggest he and his advisers do care about more than whether an idea is popular and how it will affect the deficit – even though they surely care about both those matters as well.

If we have a two-dimensional White House, that is a bad thing.  Yet it is also possible, of course, that the White House can get reported in two dimensions because it has become so conventional, in writing about the budget, only to see two dimensions. 

We might have a better idea how the Obama administration thinks about the budget after Wednesday.  I hope that, if the President’s speech includes policy arguments, they are taken seriously.

Joseph White is Director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

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