Obama’s immediate challenge is to fill the leadership vacuum created by a lame-duck president with historically-low approval ratings who seems to have lost interest in his job (at this writing, he’s out of the country) and who’s disappeared from the media, and a Treasury chief who has all but punted on coming up with any workable solution to the crisis. But Obama doesn’t become president until 12 noon eastern standard time on January 20 — and the national economy is imploding right now.
How does Obama manage this feat? Two ways: (1) appointing a highly-capable economic team, and (2) telling the nation what he plans to do starting the afternoon of January 20. Specifically:
(1) The members of Obama’s new economic team fit the bill. They’re reported (I have no inside knowledge) to include Tim Geithner at Treasury, Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew and Jason Furman at the National Economic Council, and Austan Goolsbee at the Council of Economic Advisors. All have several things in common. They’re relatively young, in their late 30s or 40s, representing a generational change and a fresh start. Despite their youth, they’re also experienced; almost all were up-and-comers in the Clinton Treasury, NEC, and OMB.
All are pragmatists. Some media have dubbed them “centrists” or “center-right,” but in truth they’re remarkably free of ideological preconception. All have well-earned reputations as hard workers, well-versed in the technical details of public and private finance. They are not visible veterans of the old battles over supply-side economics or deficit reduction, nor are they well-known to the public. They are not visionaries but we don’t need visionaries when the economic perils are clear and immediate. We need competence. Obama could not appoint a more competent group.
(2) The President-Elect has also signaled the country what he wants to do: enact an “Economic Recovery Plan” that will mean 2.5 million more jobs by January of 2011. In his words (from Saturday’s radio address) a plan “big enough to meet the challenges we face … a two-year, nationwide effort to jumpstart job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy.” Again, I have no inside knowledge, but I’d expect it to be about $600 to $700 billion.
Its focus will be on infrastructure of a sort that will not only put people to work but also improve the productivity of the economy. His words: “We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”
In short, Obama’s job-stimulus plan will be a down-payment on his larger plan to increase the nation’s public investment. “These aren’t just steps to pull ourselves out of this immediate crisis,” he says, “these are the long-term investments in our economic future that have been ignored for far too long. And they represent an early down payment on the type of reform my Administration will bring to Washington.” He could not be more specific, at least while still President-Elect.
At a time when aggregate demand is shriveling because consumers aren’t spending and investors have stopped investing, and exports are shrinking, Obama recognizes that government must be the spender of last resort. He will combine old-fashioned Kaynesian economics with newly-fashioned public investments to pull the economy out of its slump.
By putting his economic team in place barely three weeks after he was elected, and telling the nation what he plans to do immediately after he takes office, the President-Elect is asserting leadership at a time when the the Bush administration has all but abdicated.