One thing the Obama bashers never tire of is harping on the idea that Obama deserves to be judged harshly because he has not kept his campaign promises. In truth he has kept some, one in particular that is interesting is the troop surge in Aghanistan as most left-wing critics see this as a a broken promise. But I think this whole focus is wrong headed. In reality, campagin promises are made to be broken. One thing that Ido with this kind of criticism is try to figure out what the critics actually want-where exactly are the national leaders who by compariuson make Obama look so bad-if Obama is to be castigated for breaking campaign promises? Give me an example of the presidents and prime minsters that have been so above board?

     I’m pretty much open to suggestions here, I’m not too proud to admit I’m mostly drawing a blank.  As far as the history of world leaders go, one leader that I am confident that most FDLers will agree with me is worthy of admiration is FDR. Yet what is interesting about FDR is that he quite flagrantly, and aggregiously broke many promises. Two particularly notable cases wase in his first election of 1932 and his third of 1940. 

      We hear a lot of talk about the politics of austerity recently-just so we’re clear I am no fan of it. As a Keynsian it seems self-evident to me and many others, that with the economy in the bad shape it is the last thing you would want to do is dial back on government spending. The reason for this is the Keynsian insight that during a recession with a depressd private market, obviously the government is needed to step in on the investment side. The government should stimulate investment and jobs, and also do what it can to put money directly into people’s pockets.

      Dubyah himself, back in 2002 did this quite literally in the $300 checks he mailed. There were different arguments for or against it but for me 2 big weaknesses of it were that is was probaly too small and sent only to those who had jobs, cutting back on it’s stimulation as those who were unemployed for extended periods would not receive it. In addition Bush of course opposed making the rebate means based under the guise that it would be unfair to “discriminate” against wealthier tax payers. In truth including the wealthy made it regressive and so more unfair.

         This is fairly clear for many, though the conservative supplysiders still insist that it is only legitimate to stimulate the supply side-entrepreners,they say “small business owners” though they define this fairly broadly. In this sense, even they are Keynsians as they do believe in stimulus during a time of economic weakness, just not on the demand side. This was true of Freidman who criticized the Fed of 1929, etc, for not stepping in to help the banks, etc. In 1932, Keynes hadn’t yet written his General Theory, and FDR himself was certainly not a Keynsian yet as even Keynes himself wasn’t.

          During his campaign, FDR attacked Hoover not for not stimulating the economy but for running a deficit. FDR vowed that with reelection he would balance the budget. Ultimately this was a promise he did not keep and certainly in retrospect we are grateful to that-who knows when the US economy would have come back if he had? Why did FDR promise to balance the budget, and then upon being elected not balance it? In his first term he managed to balance it only once in 4 years. Yet it was a priortiy for him. He did honestly try to do it but wasn’t able to and still do what was necessary to turn the economy around. Again, FDR was not a Kenynsian, indeed their famous meeting was quite inauspicious with FDR complaining that Keynses seemed more like a mathematician than an economist and Keynses remarking that he had thought the President was much more conversant in economics. FDR in sum, was not a proponent of deficit spending-to find a president who was you have to go to JFK’s Keynsian believers in New Economic Policy for that.

            He tried to balance the budget but wasn’t able to do so while trying to turn around the economy.  Of course, the conservatives criticized him for his failure to live up to his promise. Then why didn’t he? Because the only way he could would have been to pull back on the New Deal-the WPA, TVA, etc. That would have tanked the economy. While FDR was a “deficit hawk” or “austerity nut” he thankfully placed this misguided preoccupation second behind fixing the economy and sending Americans back to work.  In 1937 after being reelected, he unfotunately drunk the coolaid and pulled back on government expenditures in a misquided attempt to belately make good on his pledge. This led us to the “double dip” of 1938.  So ulitmately FDR promised a balanced budget not out of a desire to decieve but rather ignorance on what it would take to dig the nation out and that a balanced budget was a luxury the country could not afford in a time like this. It’s to his credit that rather than “sticking to his guns” he fixed the economy.

               Again, in this case there was no desire to decieve,  he was honestly mistaken. In 1940, arguable the matter is quite difference. In 1940 he promised quite categorically and pointedly to the American people that he would not send their sons to die. At the same time he was promising Winston Churchill that he had England’s back and that he shouldn’t take the “isolationism” of the American people seriously.  FDR knew he had to get us in that the fate of the world truly hung in the balance, that it was not in US interest to sit it out, but also that many Americans-for in many cases, not so admirahle reasons, like anti-semitism and German pride(a large percentage of Americans were of German descent, comparative to the number of those of English). Ultimatlely he broke this promise too, and most would see that as a good thing.

                In truth most world leaders that we remember as great have “flipflopped.” This should be seen as a virtue, not a vice. Bush the Elder got killed in 1990 for breaking his no new taxes pledge, but really he deserves blame not for the deal he cut with Democrats but that his claim was just an example of out an out pandering. In his own instinct Bush was not a supply sider-in 1980 he had famously called supply side “voodoo economics”-so he knew better.

                 Interestingly if you insist on giving a president the nobel prize for “being an honest broker”, defining this as keeping to the letter of the law of what you said in your campaign, this award would got to Bush the Younger-Dubyah. He promised the regressive, budget busting tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. He continually changed the rationale for why they were needed base on whether the economy was in a recession or was coming out of it. Similarly he inteded all along to go into Iraq and that’s exactly what he did. But there is no virtue in such “straight shooting.” Note that straight shooting doesn’t preclude being wrong or even dishonest. To keep to what you said yesterday no matter what today or tomorrow is not honestly it’s actually intellectually degenerate.

Mike Sax

Mike Sax