Political Infighting Among “No-Drama-Obama” Economic Team Slowed Our Recovery

If you read yesterday’s New York Time’s expose on Obama’s economic policy, first off, congratulations on making it through because that thing was longer than the healthcare bill; and second, did you come away feeling like you had just read Soap Opera Digest than the Old Grey Lady?

Good grief. It was seven pages of gossip – not exactly what I’d expected out of the New York Times’ White House correspondent. I went in to the article attempting to understand President Obama’s approach to finding a job creation strategy that worked. I left feeling as if there wasn’t a strategy at all.

Trying to pin down a theme for Obama’s economic strategy is like trying to figure out Jim Carrey’s recent career path. Well, I think I wanna do drama. OK, that flopped, how a return to comedy. No, that’s boring. Now I got it, we’ll do a psychological thriller! By the end we’re left wondering what kind of an actor Carrey is, other than irrelevant?

Obama takes much the same approach “ah, what the hell, let’s try it” approach to the economy. As John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff said,

“It seemed like they were waking up every day thinking about how to pass more bills. It was like, do something. And if that doesn’t work do something else.”

Of course, the New York Times can’t call it what it is – a schizophrenic approach that had us going in circles rather than making any progress. Instead, they label it “improvisational.”

His approach to economic policy has been as much improvisational as ideological, a blend of Keynesian spending, business tax breaks, bank and auto bailouts, tax cuts for workers — really almost anything he thought could fix the problems.

Except none of it fixed the problems. In case you hadn’t noticed, even after the stimulus and every other piece of craptastic piece of legislation was passed, unemployment is still above 9 percent. The economy still sucks. And Obama apparently has fewer ideas of how to fix it than before.

That hasn’t stopped his current economic team from trying to put something together to please him. Unfortunately, the Times writes,

The ideas presented to him, though, seemed familiar and uninspired. “You know, guys,” he said, according to someone in the room, “I’ve told you before, I want you to come to me with ideas that excite me.” Nothing he was hearing excited him.

This is economics, not the NFL playoffs. Nobody is expecting excitement. We’re expecting a bunch of egg-heads to get in a room, talk about a bunch of numbers, variables, and ratios, and then bang-out a solution.

The fact that his team couldn’t pull a MacGyver (or a MacGruber if you’re too young to remember) and take a coffee mug, a desk set, and some of Reagan’s leftover jellybeans and create some sort of job-creation machine really pissed the big guy off. As one adviser told the New York Times, “He grew frustrated because the economic team didn’t have that magic combination.”

But perhaps this isn’t a problem with Obama so much as it is with the team he surrounded himself with. If we’re picking teams loaded with talent that seriously underachieved, this economic team ranks right up there with the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Mets. They were all getting their fingers sized for rings before they ever won a game. Turns out they wouldn’t win many.

And to be clear, Obama did assemble a team that would’ve made the Miami Heat blush. Ya had Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary and Harvard President, Christina Romer, a UC Berkeley professor with a kick-ass research background, Paul Volcker, a former Federal Reserve Chairman who is known for a historic beat down of inflation in the 80s, and Peter Orszag, who is only 42 but has the intellectual capacity of a moderately sized country.

What appeared to be a dream team ended up like a badly scripted sitcom. Summers was the overbearing boss that apparently makes Meryl Streep’s character in the Devil Wears Prada (yes, I’m a dude and I’ve watched it) easy to work for. As one colleague told the New York Times,

“He’s much better at telling you why you’re stupid than creating a system that can produce usable policy solutions.”

Then there’s Christina Romer, the character who really, really wants to be part of the cool group but just can’t find a way to fit it. I’m envisioning a Saved-By-The-Bell-style-Screech-like-character. As the Times describes one incident,

“Summers skirmished with Romer over a meeting at which she was not included. ‘I didn’t come here to waste my time,” Romer angrily told him.”

This kind of crap is supposed to go on in elementary school playgrounds, not the freakin’ Oval Office

Then there’s Paul Volcker, the down in the dumps “aw-shucks” character that finally gets noticed. I would say this is a dead fit for Rudolph, but one, Christmastime is over and I went way over my holiday-metaphor quota before we even hit Thanksgiving, and two, I’m not sure how a claymation character would fit in my live-action sitcom. So we’ll go with, Ted Williams ! You know, that homeless guy that was recently discovered for having a golden voice.

Volcker was never quite that low, but the Times says that he “felt ignored” and left out of the loop. That is until, the President started using one of his ideas, even throwing him a bone by calling it the “Volcker Rule.” I bet he was insufferable after that. Word is that he goes around introducing himself by saying, “Hey…You know the Volcker Rule? (pause for emphasis) It’s named after me.” OK, I made that last part up, but we all know someone at work who does that.

Finally, you’ve got Orszag. He plays the role of the really smart guy with the really great ideas who gets ignored because he’s too young to know what he’s talking about. It’s like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, except this guy was the director of the CBO, not a janitor. The Times described the situation, saying:

At the heart of the friction was the deficit, which Orszag saw as a priority. Other officials tired of Orzsag’s refrain. “Yes, the deficit’s important, but not this year,” said one official. “I think the deficit for him was always most important. He was not winning the argument.”

We listened to ya Pete! We’ve written extensively on the threat of debt and deficits! Sadly, we’re more ignored than you are. In fact, while I’m at it. Hello? Is anyone reading this? Can you hear us out there in conservative land? No? Ok. We’ll keep writing anyways, perhaps our blog will become well read posthumously.

So there ya have it, four widely disparate characters that wouldn’t make a good sitcom, much less a good economic team. And that’s the problem. We couldn’t stick them on TNT at 9pm on a Friday in hopes they’d go away, these were the people who were entrusted with getting our economy going again. This is the group that millions of people relied on to help them get a job to keep food on the table and a roof over their head.

But as Orszag reflected,

“Unfortunately, I think the environment often brought out the worst in people instead of the best in people. And I’d include myself in that.”

Now the team that was self-described “dysfunctional” is defunct. And while the New York Times “pick[s] through the wreckage of a messy divorce,” let’s hope Obama’s new dream team of economic advisers is busy coming up with solutions that excite him. Or better yet…that actually create a damn job.

by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee