What Obama’s Economic Argument Should Look Like: The Great Risk Shift

23 Sep

One of the things that seems to be missing from the Obama campaign’s economic rhetoric is a coherent narrative under which he can group his policy proposals .  Citing deregulation, the influence of lobbyists (with strong ties to the Republican party and John McCain’s campaign), and tax cuts for oil companies is a scatter-shot of political sins and policy failures.  But as Ezra Klein observed recently when critiquing an Obama ad, these things don’t really go together in the minds of voters:

But the substance of the ad, the solutions, are a string of disconnected, and fairly unconvincing, sentences. “Reform our tax system to give a $1,000 tax break to the middle class, instead of showering more on oil companies and corporations that outsource our jobs.” This would be fine if McCain were publicly advocating the “Oil Companies and Outsourcers Tax Cut of 2008,” but as he won’t admit to favoring these things, it just sounds like Obama is another politician promising Good Stuff, and no one really believes in Good Stuff. 

Jacob Hacker’s idea of “The Great Risk Shift” would be one, I think powerful, way of thinking about the current crisis and forming a positive argument.  It also has two major political messaging benefits:

  1. Like Bill Clinton’s 1992 message, it tells the voters what the Republicans are doing wrong (they’re shifting the burden of financial risk from other players in the system–who can and should assume their own risk–and shifting it to the middle and lower classes).  It’s the worst features of both Big Government and free-market fervor: regulatory capture, corporate patronage, and bailouts for those at the top combined with little to no oversight to keep markets running smoothly (even if you favor a “night watchmen” for regulatory oversight, it’d be best if that watchman wasn’t asleep on the job). 
  2. It offers a flexible range of policy responses.  The campaign doesn’t have to adopt all of Hacker’s proposals to make the case against McCain’s plans.  You could offer a more populist, John Edwards inspired package under the narrative of restoring safeguards for the American worker as easily as you could a more limited, “iPod government” initiative.

The message of the late 80s and early 90s was that “trickle-down economics” had failed to actually trickle down.  The message for the remaining days of this campaign should be that average voters deserve a governemnt that makes all players in the system assume their fair share of risk.

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