Bryan Caplan  

Will Obama Be a Carter or a Clinton?

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Two years ago, I was worried by the "Obama as FDR" scenario.  That cloud is lifting.  Now two alternate scenarios for Obama keep coming to mind.

Scenario #1: Obama as Carter.  He'll ineffectively stick to his guns, seem weak, become a one-term president, and be replaced by a Republican who pulls the plug on a lot of accumulated statist nonsense.

Scenario #2: Obama as Clinton.  He'll move to the center, let his opponents shoot themselves in the foot, win re-election, and preside over four more years of salutory gridlock.

Take your pick.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Ryan writes:


What about a scenario #1.B?

"Obama becomes a one term President and is replaced by a Republican who continues a lot of the accumulated statist nonsense but at a much slower pace?"

I see this as a very real possibility.



Greengenes writes:

Where is the center on Health care policy, financial regulation, and environmental issues?

I don't see any political incentives for anyone on the right to move towards the center. If almost any Republican dares to break the Republican party line on a major issue they will be replaced by a more conservative Republican or a Democrat.

Incentives matter.

Sanguine writes:

Obama is already much worse than either Carter or Clinton.

1.4 Trillion in debt his first year, projection of 1.6T in his second year.

In short, the man is an economic disaster.

Jim Glass writes:

I don't see any political incentives for anyone on the right to move towards the center.

Right. And clearly there are no political incentives on the left for anyone to move to the center.

Which is why so many on the left are screaming that the Dems should pass the health reform bill as it is as the "right thing", and if it costs the Democrats all their Blue Dogs and moderates in Congress too damn bad. (Was it Ezra Klein who said "So they lose their seats. It's not like being stoned to death."?)

The only periods of decent -- that is, least bad -- governance during the last generation very clearly have been during Bush I and Clinton 1995-2000 ... when each party had a share of the government.

When each party has part of the govt, each blocks the other's excesses and the only things that can get passed are bipartisan.

That's the only way to keep the ruling party's extremists from driving everything for the worst, and to get any kind of real reform on anything -- especially the budget, which is on cource to devour us all.

(See the 1983 Reagan-O'Neill Social Security bailout and the 1986 Tax Reform Act as evidence that bipartisanship can work.)

But bipartisanship only works when it is the only option, never out of one party's kindheartedness towards the other.

Donald Marron puts this in a pretty picture regarding political posing on the deficit.

When it is time to increase the national debt limit, and ...

[] Democrats control the government, Republicans demogogue them and damn their fiscal irresponsibility on soap boxes across the nation.

[] Republicans control the government, Democrats demogogue them and damn their fiscal irresponsibility on soap boxes across the nation

[] Each party has a share of the govt, they calmly raise the the limit together.

Yancey Ward writes:

Let us hope divided government returns in 2010 and remains. Neither party can be trusted.

Jim Glass writes:

The (omitted) conclusion from my comment above is: it doesn't matter whether Obama is the next Carter or Clinton.

What matters is that of the White House, Senate, and House, each party controls at least one.

Ergo, I'm rooting for the Repubs to pick up the House this fall, which is far more likely than them winning the Senate, with only 1/3rd of Senators up for re-election.

As it is, the Dems have far more voting power in Washington than the Bush Repubs ever had. The only reason they are reeling in shock today -- even with 59 senators and 60% of the house plus the WH -- is that they are such a bunch of over-reaching wussies. Somehow they can't get anything done without 60 votes in the senate -- even though the Dubya Repubs never had near to 60 and got plenty done just fine.

If the Dems recover from their current state of shock, realize they still have big majorities in both sides of Congress, hold the House this fall, and then decide to become more realistic and effective, they could still very unilaterally do a ton of damage.

So hope split govt arrives in November.

Nick writes:

Jim Glass,

The democrats have a problem the republicans do not. The republicans (most of them, the neo-cons) are pro-business and their constituents advocate a pro-business agenda. So no ideological conflict. The democrats espouse a pro-government and anti-business philosophy, their constituents expect this kind of policy, but in rality they are just as much corporate whores as the republicans. So ultimately their agenda ends up watered down by special interest meddling. The constituents get pissed off and vote them out and the republicans vote them out just on principle. Of course they aren't effective, they start out disadvantaged.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Bryan, I hope you are correct that BO isn't going to be another FDR. It seems to me that he is still likely to continue to propose or impose policies that are bad for the economy and blame Bush for everything that goes wrong. FDR got away with it for 10 years. Why can't BO?
Of your two choices, Scenario 2 seems more likely. It allows BO to be a successful president and continue to beat up on Republicans.
And one edit to Scenario 1: he might be replaced by a Republican who PROMISES to pull the plug on accumulated statist nonsense. I would be very surprised if a Republican president actually presides over a reduced government.

I may be a Republican, but I'm also a realist.

jr. writes:

You forgot that Carter found a new way to play. Then Clinton also found a new way to play. They were both different from previous Dem. Pres. BO might present us a new drama too.

johnleemk writes:

Well, Carter did get the ball rolling on deregulation, which I think is often conveniently forgotten. He also appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed, which probably did a lot more to tackle inflation than Gerald Ford's WIN or Richard Nixon's price controls. Would be nice if Obama went this route.

Dezakin writes:

Hrm... Republicans good democrats bad again. Obama democrat so must be bad! Buah was good because republican! Nevermind medicare drug givaway and lots more government under bush...

Hey if you want to slash spending in the middle of a recession while doing nothing about entitlements and then blame a party that superficially has less ideological values in common, go ahead. You can write a book on why the second great depression was because of deficit spending and Keynes was wrong again.

Matt writes:

Doesn't this scenario have as much to do with Congress elections as presidential? I vote for gridlock, but what if dems keep the House and the Senate and I vote for Obama? What if I vote for the R and Republicans flip Congress?

I think I'll just stay home this time.

Larry Phillips writes:

He'll be closer to Carter. Clinton was more pragmatic because he had been a multi-term governor of Arkansas, and thus had more real-world managerial and budgetary responsibilities. Obama has never managed a large organization or met a payroll. He is, rather, a former academic, community organizer, and career politician who believes in spreading the wealth. For Obama the private sector is nothing more than a source of revenue to support an ever-larger public sector. Unfortunately, both major political parties are corrupt. Our political future is extremely bleak!

Sarge writes:


Damn good point, except that I would suggest that it need not be at a slower pace. President Bush was able to continue statist nonsense at a fairly breakneck pace.

My own suspicion here is that Obama will be more of a Clinton than a Carter, for no other reasons than how poorly Republicans organize and the strength of President Obama's oratory skills. But this belief is not much more than a weakly held hunch for me.

James writes:

I think he is a John Dewey.

Elijah J. writes:

A few months ago i would have agreed with scenario #2 but after the events of the last few months i'd have to say the correct answer is c. Conservatives continue to demonize Obama, and as a result, Obama moves to the center, only to realize in 2012 that he took too long to do it.

[Comment edited: overuse of capitalization removed. Elijah J.: Please do not do that again or your comment privileges will be restricted.--Econlib Ed.]

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