I Am Not as Easily Worried as Greg Mankiw

13 Feb

Greg Mankiw worries that Barack Obama may side with the populists of the Democratic party rather than the centrists, thanks to a statement like this:

It’s a game where trade deals like NAFTA ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. That’s what happens when the American worker doesn’t have a voice at the negotiating table, when leaders change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment, and that’s why we need a President who will listen to Main Street – not just Wall Street; a President who will stand with workers not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.

The first part of this statement is populist bluster, so I can see why this raised Mankiw’s neoclassical hackles. The second part of the statement is the more important part because it explicitly states what the first part implies: “Some of you have been shut out (or feel left out) from economic prosperity but I will not forget you. You will have a voice in my administration.” That is as fine, if essentially bland and boilerplate political statement. And when we consider other signals, like his economic policy team, Obama is still safely in the centrist category.

So what’s with the NAFTA bashing? There are primaries in Texas and Ohio that Clinton is favored to win, with primary voters that respond to the populist message and whose demographic makeup work against him and for Clinton. Obama needs to join his primary momentum with appeals to Clinton’s likely supporters if he wants to lock up a victory. Thus, the political logic of populist rhetoric.

I think one of the biggest political issues an Obama administration will have to deal with is criticism from the left that he is insufficiently progressive or too economically conservative. What happened to the revolutionary leader who was going to sweep into Washington and eliminate corporate power and legislate away poverty? But he hasn’t promised those things and he isn’t the revolutionary leader some on the left are looking for (at least, not in the ways they want him to be).  For my part, Obama’s more centrist tendencies and wide appeal are why I’m a supporter.

Obama appears to be a canny pragmatist with strong political gifts, a man who can build coalitions through deft political maneuvering and while bringing the polity along with leadership and inspirational rhetoric. None of these things are negative; they are all part of politics, and this NAFTA comment seems a part of this.

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