Friday was yet another day when I wished Obama could be locked up in a room alone with Chris Matthews. In my imagination—and I bet in Chris’s, too—the host of Hardball would yell in Obama’s ears until he really was “fired up,” as he still likes to say he is, and ready to fight for something real.
Before Obama’s press conference and the Republicans’ willful misinterpretation of his clumsy remark that “the private sector is doing fine”—he meant, of course, compared to the devastated public sector—Matthews was on MSNBC’s Jansing & Co. passionately urging Obama to turn his and the country’s prospects around with a big-spending infrastructure program.
Matthews was on fire—admittedly not hard for a man whose normal temperature is just short of kindling. Too often dismissed as an overexcitable, unintentionally comical pundit, Matthews has been arguing for months now that Obama needs to go “big and bold.” He thinks the president should brag about his accomplishments, talk more like Bill Clinton, and send out more and better surrogates, because he seems eerily alone out there. Coaching Obama on how to market both his presidency and Keynesian economics itself, Matthews practically barked at him to go all Harry Truman–meets–Paul Krugman and rail against the Do Nothing Congress.
"He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to be big time,” Matthews said. “Stop this nickel and dime, ‘a couple bucks for the teachers, a couple bucks for the firefighters. I’m going to reduce the payroll tax.’ This is piss-ant. You can’t get re-elected with tactics. He needs a strategy. Which is, ‘we’re different from the Republicans.’ ”
“Go as big as possible and let [the Republicans] say no,” Chris advised. “If they’re going to say no to Spam, they’re going to say no to steak,” so offer steak and you “offer something big the American people can wrap their minds around. Then when Republicans say no, they will have something” to visualize, to understand, and to fight for.
When former George W. Bush deputy press secretary Tony Fratto, another guest on the show, started to argue the GOP talking point about tax cuts creating jobs, Matthews cut in, “Here’s that idiot Republican argument,” and later, “I feel like I’m teaching first grade here.”
Government has to take action because investors won’t and consumers can’t, he said. The Republican House won’t even pass the popular transportation bill, trying to block any job creation before the elections in order to sink Obama. When Fratto said, “This Republican obstruction story is fantasy,” Matthews drove a bulldozer over him: “You’re the roadblock party, the other party is the highway party.” (A possible slogan?)
Then, Obama took the podium for his presser. After explaining that the European economic crisis makes strengthening our economy that much more crucial, he did get around to some of the things Matthews advised—but without oomph. Obama said Congress should pass the America Jobs Act that he sent them in September; that’s the plan Matthews calls Spam compared to the steak we really need. But as Obama rather diffidently asked that Congress “reconsider” the bill, you could almost see why Republicans are getting away with the outrageous Big Lie that he never put forth a jobs plan at all.
And when asked if he agreed with Bill Clinton’s comment that Republicans are now following Europe’s disastrous policy of austerity (“Who would have thought,” said Clinton, “after years and years, even decades, in which the Republican right attacked ‘old Europe,’ that they would embrace the economic policies of the euro zone—austerity and unemployment now at all costs?”), Obama agreed, but only indirectly so. He even echoed Krugman’s championship of John Maynard Keynes’s point that “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity”—it’s just that Obama’s wonky wordiness sounded like a seminar, not a call to action:
So the problem I think President Clinton identified is that if, when an economy is still weak and a recovery is still fragile, that you resort to a strategy of “let’s cut more”—so that you’re seeing government layoffs, reductions in government spending, severe cutbacks in major investments that help the economy grow over the long term—if you’re doing all those things at the same time as consumers are pulling back because they’re still trying to pay off credit card debt, and there’s generally weak demand in the economy as a whole, then you can get on a downward spiral where everybody is pulling back at the same time. That weakens demand and that further crimps the desire of companies to hire more people. And that’s the pattern that Europe is in danger of getting into.
Now, that’s all correct—but it gums the issue to death.
So Obama didn’t do Truman, he didn’t do Clinton, he didn’t even do Pelosi by demanding that Congress stay in session to pass a transportation and jobs bills. Nor did he to mention the Republicans directly when criticizing “Congress.” (Neither does this ad by his campaign, but it’s at least punchy.)
That is, even after Wisconsin and Romney out-fundraising him in the month of May, Obama is still reluctant to go big.
If, however, he fought and argued and bulldozed the opposition like legions of voters have advised, maybe the inevitable gaffes to come will seem all the more, to quote Matthews, piss-ant.