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Belmont Club

The old medicine show

December 26th, 2011 - 1:08 pm

Despite presiding over a rapidly rocketing “misery index”, President Obama is sanguine about his chances for re-election. The reason is that being so far down automatically gives rise to both the need to blame someone for the debacle and to rely increasingly in the hope for a Hail Mary pass. And he aims to provide both. Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal describes the blame part:

By most normal standards for gauging a president’s chances of re-election, Mr. Obama would appear sunk.

But “this isn’t an ordinary year,” argues David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief political adviser. And it’s just possible that the normal political metrics don’t hold in a time of unusual economic and political ferment. Indeed, Mr. Obama holds some advantages that are obscured by the overall economic gloom.

For starters, after more than three years in office, he still isn’t shouldering most of the blame for the economic slump. When the Journal/NBC News poll last month asked Americans who they think is most to blame for current economic problems, both former President Bush and Wall Street bankers were fingered more often than was President Obama.

The “it’s all Bush’s fault” mantra can be pretty convincing if you can sell it. Then there is the second argument: that all of the Republican contenders are pygmies compared to the dear leader and therefore if you want a miracle recovery, elect the Miracle Man. Seib continues:

Second, whatever unhappiness exists with Mr. Obama’s economic record, there is ample reason to think Republicans are even less popular. Just over 40% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the president, but 48% hold an unfavorable view of Republicans. And when Americans are asked which party is better at dealing with the economy, the two parties are rated about evenly.

“That Republicans are still not seen as a truly acceptable alternative at the moment gets at the anger and the frustration the public has at Washington, that nobody is doing anything right,” says Jay Campbell, a Democratic pollster who works for Peter Hart Research. Hart Research helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, along with Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies.

The gridlock that has taken hold in Congress since Republicans won control of the House last year doesn’t appear to be helping the GOP either. A record 42% of Americans call the current Congress one of the worst ever, and they rate Republicans’ performance in it slightly below that of the Democrats.

Moreover, none of the Republicans jockeying for the right to run against Mr. Obama next year is exactly soaring in public esteem. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now one of the two front-runners for the GOP nomination, is popular among his party’s conservatives, but gets low ratings among the kinds of independent swing voters who tend to decide national elections. His main opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, does better among independent voters but isn’t particularly popular among his own party’s conservatives.

Taken together, all these forces suggest that a close election lies ahead.

Since the disenchantment with government is general, the incumbent gains the unexpected advantage of being able to argue  ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t’.Besides, President Obama still has his miracle cure on offer. He claims the only reason his “redistributive” medicine hasn’t worked yet is because the public hasn’t drunk enough of it. Four more years of Barack’s patent medicine and we’ll all be cured of acne, dandruff and insolvency. Besides given the advanced state of the disease, what’s there left to lose?

Robert Samuelson that the real cure for debt is too painful. To fix the problem at the core of America’s woes means surgery.  The  Republicans aren’t prepared to mention it, so it leaves the field open for the patent medicine salesman and his traveling retinue of singers and dancers.  Samuelson writes:

We are shifting from “give away politics” to “take away politics.” Since World War II, presidents and Congresses have been in the enviable position of distributing more benefits to more people without requiring ever-steeper taxes. Now, this governing formula no longer works, and politicians face the opposite: taking away — reducing benefits or raising taxes significantly — to prevent government deficits from destabilizing the economy. It is not clear that either Democrats or Republicans can navigate the change.

The problem is that making the change is that take dieting is unpleasant. “No one wants to take away; it’s more fun to give.” So while the past nostrums of both parties no longer work, the fake patent medicine tastes better — so why not sell it?

All 2011′s budget feuds — over the debt ceiling, the supercommittee, the payroll tax cut — skirted the central issues. There’s a legitimate debate about how fast deficits should be reduced to avoid jeopardizing the economic recovery, notes Charles Blahous, a White House official in the George W. Bush Administration. But the long-term budget problem, as he says, stems from Social Security, Medicare and other health programs.

Any resolution of the budget impasse must repudiate, at least partially, the past half-century’s politics. Conservatives look at the required tax increases and say: “no way.” Liberals look at the required benefit cuts and say: “no way.”

Each reverts to scripted evasions. Liberals imply (wrongly) that taxing the rich will solve the long-term budget problem. It won’t. For example, the Forbes 400 richest Americans have a collective wealth of $1.5 trillion. If the government simply confiscated everything they own, and turned them into paupers, it would barely cover the one-time 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion. Conservatives deplore “spending” in the abstract, ignoring the popularity of much spending, especially Social Security and Medicare.

So the political system is failing. It’s stuck in the past. It can’t make desirable choices about the future. It can’t resolve deep conflicts.

Given that neither side is willing to go for a deep fix the problem, President Obama may have decided that all he needs to do is put on a good show.   History shows that selling nothing works for a long, long time.

Dudley Joseph “Coozan Dud” LeBlanc (August 16, 1894 – October 22, 1971) was a colorful and popular Democratic and Cajun member of the Louisiana State Senate whose entrepreneurial talents netted him a fortune through the alcohol-laden patent medicine known as “Hadacol.” He is also considered the “father of the old age pension” in Louisiana….

the Hadacol Caravan, sponsored by Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc and his LeBlanc Corporation, makers of the dubious patent medicine/vitamin tonic “Hadacol”, known for both its alleged curative powers and its high alcohol content. The stage show, which ran throughout the Deep South in the 1940s with great publicity, featured a number of notable music acts and Hollywood celebrities, and was used to promote Hadacol (which was sold heavily during intermission and after the show). Admission to the show was paid in boxtops of the vitamin tonic, sold in stores throughout the southern United States. The Caravan came to a sudden halt in 1951, when the Hadacol enterprise fell apart in a financial scandal.

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The public wailing over the death of Kim Jong-il may have confirmed to David Axelrod what he may have long suspected: “normal political metrics” don’t matter if the propaganda works and you have thousands of government dependents willing to vote for Hadacol to keep from losing their jobs. Kim gave people nothing but misery. But how they loved him for it. So at any rate the old medicine show is worth a try.

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