- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Suppose, as seems a distinct possibility, that the sloppily crafted, spend-to-oblivion stimulus package does precious little near-term good while causing eventual runaway inflation, a teetering dollar, huge tax increases and overall diminution of American prosperity and power. Will Barack Obama pay a political price?

Maybe not. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal fiscal policies did not end the Depression and may have done more harm than good, but he was perceived as bold and caring, a dynamic leader making the best of the situation while here and there easing pain.

President Obama’s approval ratings are high. He has excited the country as a man of exceptional intellect and a seemingly calm, determined, self-possessed temperament. He conveys a sense of genuine regard for the welfare of others. He is widely viewed as honest and someone intent on doing the right thing whatever the obstacles.

Convincing people that he may also be gravely mistaken in his policy prescriptions wouldn’t be easy even if the evidence were overwhelming, and, first off, it may not be, and secondly, many of those doing the evaluating and passing on the information may be prejudiced in his favor.

After all, we’re still arguing about the Depression’s causes and cures decades after the fact, and while this economic emergency roughly follows the pattern of other boom-and-bust panics, it is also a thing unto itself, different in many ways from anything that has proceeded it.

Tracking the consequences of this stimulus policy will not be a sport for casual amateurs or an unproblematic one for professionals. We can know, though, that as long as he stays more liberal than not, economists on the left will see things Mr. Obama’s way, and many in the press will happily give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if calamity comes from his initiatives, it may be blamed on anyone and everyone but Mr. Obama, on President George W. Bush, maybe.

The congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have the disadvantage of speaking with many voices. Their stance on the stimulus bill has been in many ways commendable, a refusal to go along with something so highly suspect on so many grounds, but a lot of what they have done is nipping at the heels instead of going for the jugular.

They’ve pointed out the pork in the legislation, all the welfare-state embellishments and how slowly some projects kick in when the whole concept of spending our way out of trouble is a joke in the minds of many astute, market-based economists. Unlike Mr. Obama, who has made scare tactics a prime part of his argument, the Republicans have by and large taken a less alarmist tone about the threat of his policies, and by the way, a more congenial one.

Let’s hope they do stand tall, for every president needs a strong, coherent opposition to challenge him and treat the nation to enlightening debate, and this president’s first weeks in office are less than auspicious.

We had the nominating snafus. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner gave us a description of a bank rescue plan that many found confusing, incomplete and limitlessly ad hoc. Mr. Obama announced a policy that in effect could give California the right to determine national auto emission standards even if that means ruin for an already shaky auto industry. A bill he signed to reauthorize a health insurance program extended benefits to high-income families at the expense of low-income groups.

The inexperience of President John F. Kennedy led him to the backing of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, and all kinds of bad consequences flowed from that. The Obama equivalent in naivete may be this stimulus package, many parts of which come across as a wing and a prayer, as action for the sake of action. A question is what happens to Mr. Obama if the plan falls on its face, and one possible answer is that he thrives.

Jay Ambrose is former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.

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