Explaining the Puzzling Inaction of Barack Obama

by Will on September 7, 2010

The Obama administration put forth a laughably small $50 billion jobs program that fails to incorporate the good ideas that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have suggested, like a Payroll Tax holiday. Brad DeLong is frustrated:

To put forward a weak, ineffective, Republican idea for further stimulus that then does not pass seems the worst of all possible worlds.

Brad is assuming that the administration wants what it says it does. I sometimes doubt that this is so. I can think of three reasons that they might behave so very contrary to their apparent interests and those of their party.

*Learned Helplessness. It is possible that Obama and his advisors have political learned helplessness. Their formative political experience was in a world where Republicans had the upper hand in Washington and usually got their way, and it was taken for granted that the Dems could get nothing done. The best game in town was, “compromise with the Republicans so some will vote for your bill.” Now that situations are different and they needn’t do that, they still feel helpless and defer to the Republicans. This gels with how the last few years have looked to me: the administration’s decisive pushes have mostly only come after much hectoring from Pelosi and Reid.

*Stockholm Syndrome. This is a similar psychological glitch, wherein one feels irrational sympathy with someone who has power over one. Obama’s advisors might suffer from it.

*Sabotage. Like nearly all who have made it to the white house, Obama is very likely a completely unprincipled, cynical person, ultimately not motivated by anything but his own career. I think it’s quite possible that he would prefer working with a Republican congress for the next two years, on the theory that this will put him in a stronger position to win reelection. That seems to be how it worked out for Clinton in 1996, and Obama wants to get credit for doing “bipartisan” stuff, so it’s possible that when the new Republican house opens up and starts trying to impeach him, he’ll pass a Republican bill cutting social security or making some such gesture of “fiscal conservatism.”

None of these possibilities cheers me. But alas.

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