The big one

November 4th, 2008

Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, Barack Obama will be elected president of the United States tomorrow. Barring an unforeseen miracle, by the time he is inaugurated, the US (and much of the rest of the world) will be in the deepest recession for decades. This is going to be a huge challenge, and two months of drift certainly won’t help. Paul Krugman is calling (not sure how seriously) for an interim government of national unity. It seems highly unlikely, though, even in the face of a failure as complete as that of any Administration since Hoover’s (or maybe Buchanan’s) that Bush will be willing to cede even one day of power to the incoming Democrats.

The situation when Obama takes over will be one of huge challenges and huge opportunities. The challenges are obvious: the economy in a gigantic mess, a string of foreign policy disasters and military misadventures and a deeply divided country. Only changes that are both radical and well designed will fix these problems, and this is a difficult combination to pull off.

The opportunities are the flip side of this. Not only does Obama seem likely to come in with big Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress and a big popular mandate*, but the severity of the crisis has undermined what seemed like unalterable political taboos. The Republican Administration has just nationalised a large chunk of the banking system, and has long since abandoned any adherence to notions like balanced budgets. In these circumstances, the idea that policies of expanded government intervention are too radical for Americans to contemplate seem only marginally less silly than a literal acceptance of the McCain clam that Obama’s victory would constitute a referendum in favour of socialism.

Looking at what Obama needs to do, the big items are bringing the financial system back under control, rebalancing the tax system while substantially increasing tax revenue in the long term and completing the New Deal, particularly with respect to health care. More on all these items soon.

* In this context, I don’t think it’s critical that the Dems win the 60 Senate seats required to stop a filibuster under the Senate’s arcane procedural rules. It’s usually possible to peel off a few moderate votes. And, in any case, it’s just a procedural rule that can be abolished by simple majority. The threat of that happening will probably be enough to prevent overuse of this device.

Categories: Politics (general), World Events Tags:
  1. November 4th, 2008 at 15:14 | #1

    Are you sure the filibuster rule can be abolished by simple majority? I read somewhere (don’t remember where, sorry) that the filibuster rule can only be abolished by 2/3 majority.

  2. Patrick Caldon
    November 4th, 2008 at 16:02 | #2

    Perhaps you could filibuster the motion to remove the filibuster?

  3. jquiggin
    November 4th, 2008 at 16:07 | #3

    According to the relevant Wikipedia article

    “In 2005, a group of Republican senators led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), responding to the Democrats’ threat to filibuster some judicial nominees of President George W. Bush to prevent a vote on the nominations, floated the idea of making a rules change to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees with the justification that the current Senate rules can be changed with a simple majority based on the Constitutional stipulation that each Congress can set its own rules. This idea, called the “constitutional option,” had been used to defeat filibusters in a few select cases in the history of the Senate, including passing continually filibustered Civil Rights legislation in 1959. Senator Trent Lott, the junior Republican senator from Mississippi, named the plan the “nuclear option.” Republican leaders preferred to use the historical term “constitutional option,” though opponents and some supporters of the plan continue to use “nuclear option.””

  4. jquiggin
    November 4th, 2008 at 16:09 | #4

    PS: Constitutional amendments, impeachment votes and treaties require 2/3 – there may be others.

  5. Spiros
    November 4th, 2008 at 16:15 | #5

    The 60 seat thing is furphy, because there is no party discipline in the Senate. But the more Democrat senators there are, the more likely it is that the Democratic Senate Leadership will be able to find the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster.

    Currently the Dems have 49 Senators and can usually count on the support of independent socialist Bernie Sanders from Vermont and independent Joe Lieberman from Connecticut for their majority. It looks like will win 7 Senate seats from Republicans; maybe up to 9 if it’s a huge day for the Dems, but this is unlikely, for it would man defeating the truly execrable Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, and he looks like he’s got enough good ‘ole boys supportig him to win.

    But even the best case scenario has to rely on Lieberman’s support. Lieberman is supporting McCain in this election and is widely tipped as McCain’s secretary of state should the Republicans manage to steal the election. Lieberman was first elected in 1988 as a Democrat when he defeated the liberal Republican (a now extinct species) Lowell Weicker, who was well to Lieberman’s left.

    So relying on Lieberman to get 60 votes to get progressive things done is fraught. But the same is true of other Democrat Senators, such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

    On the other hand, there are a few moderate Republican Senators, such as the two from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. As Republicans go, they are not too bad, and could be brought over from the dark side for crucial votes.

    “Barack Obama will be elected president of the United States tomorrow.”

    Actually it will December 15th when the electoral college meets.

    “interim government of national unity.”

    Bush would be less likely to agree to this than Robert Mugabe. And why would Obama agree to compromise the start of his presidency in this way? Obama is promising change, not business as usual with the other brand.

  6. SJ
    November 4th, 2008 at 17:06 | #6

    Bush has been quiet lately, so as not to upset McCain’s chances too much. But that constraint disappears after the election result is known.

    If (as is likely) Obama wins, Bush will be flat out for the next few months handing out pardons and as many other favors as he can, and who knows, maybe bombing Iran.

  7. scott
    November 4th, 2008 at 17:42 | #7

    Prof, your Krugman linky doesn’t work…

  8. SJ
    November 4th, 2008 at 17:53 | #8
  9. Nick K
    November 4th, 2008 at 17:54 | #9

    As has been mentioned above, the Republicans previously toyed with abolishing the filibuster when they were last in control of the Senate.

    The reason why the majority party has often been reluctant to do this is that it could easily backfire if control of the Senate changes. Then the other side can say ‘now we have 51 Senators, we are going to ram through everything we want and the other side be damned’. That is why it has been called the “nuclear option”. Because it’s high risk and could backfire. It is also inherently risky because voters are more likely to punish ruling parties that abuse their power.

    It’s also interesting to note that the rule requiring 60 Senators to break a filibuster was not always in place in the Senate. Originally, it only required one Senator to stop legislation by insisting on prolonged debate.

    The Democrats will probably be able to rely on the support of a handful of RINOs to get their measures through, including Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one or two others from New England, and perhaps even John McCain who has a history of working with Democrats.

  10. November 4th, 2008 at 18:27 | #10

    when i was 18, i found myself working in pascagoula mississippi. my first evening in town, just walking down the street, i unconsciously made a little dodge movement to miss an oncoming walker. unnecessary. the other person, a black kid about my age, jumped into the gutter. in 2 seconds, i learned more about ‘jim crow’ than i could get from any book. pretty depressing.

    now an african american will be president, barring large scale jiggery pokery with electronic voting. i guess this counts as good progress for 5o years.

    and yet, when i was young, americans didn’t casually kill foreigners and shrug their shoulders with a “collateral damage” offered as a justification.

    i’m glad obama is getting in, but america is no better.

  11. Spiros
    November 4th, 2008 at 19:15 | #11

    “when i was young, americans didn’t casually kill foreigners and shrug their shoulders with a “collateral damageâ€? offered as a justification.”

    They did in Vietnam, which was 40+ years ago. Indeed, the callous term orginated in that conflict.

  12. Ikonoclast
    November 4th, 2008 at 19:51 | #12

    “Barring an unforeseen catastrophe..”

    Or perhaps, a foreseen catastrophe. The main danger once again is that the Republicans will steal the presidential election with deliberate electoral fraud as they did in 2000 (Florida mainly) and 2004 (Ohio and other states).

    The problems centre around the USA’s lack of a federal election agency to oversee the election, the partisan management of polling stations in the states and the lack of indepedent checking and audit trails for computer voting.

    I remember the 2004 poll where the Dems looked comfortable on the states map with early to mid-range counting, exit polls were heavily Kerry’s way and the pundits were predicting a Kerry win. Then a swathe of states fell to Bush at the last moment in the seemingly most improbable way. The moment it starting happening, it felt odd to me. I’ve never seen an elction go like that.

    There are claims of papers pointing out the extreme statistical improbability of what happened. There are other papers claiming to debunk these papers.

  13. observa
    November 4th, 2008 at 20:07 | #13

    Actually you should have a quick glance at the link on Market Watch page titled
    ’12 survival tips for the next four years if your candidate loses’
    that Krugman links to for the factory gauge figures. Judging by the intro facts and figures it’s probably a good survival guide whether their candidate wins or loses. As for the candidates themseves, probably the loser tomorrow will be the ultimate winner. That boy Obama is gunna age quick over the next 4 years.

  14. SJ
    November 4th, 2008 at 21:21 | #14

    “That boy”?

    You should just stick with being weird, obby, and leave out the racism. Strocchi has the market for it cornered anyway.

  15. Nick K
    November 4th, 2008 at 21:34 | #15


    The fact that exit polls predicted a Kerry win in 2004 is hardly proof that the election was somehow rigged. There are numerous reasons why polls are sometimes inaccurate. Partly it is because people who are more conservative are slightly less likely to admit their political preferences than those left-of-centre. I have noticed a similar trend in Aus, where the Coalition usually does slightly better on election day than the published polls (especially so in 2004).

    If you look at the 2004 US election results state-by-state, there are some significant trends that go against what you are arguing.

    One is that if you compare the 2004 and the 2000 election results, the swing to Bush across the country was generally stronger in states which are fairly safe Republican or Democrat. Bush lost most of the north-east by much smaller margins than he did in 2000. Bush also won most of the more solidly red states in the south and west by bigger margins in 2004 than he did in 2000.

    If you look at the results in the more competitive states, Kerry’s vote generally held up better and the pro-Bush swing was generally weaker than the nation as a whole. Indeed Kerry won states that would have fallen to Bush on a uniform national swing (Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Oregon). While there were competitive states that actually registered swings to Kerry and against Bush (New Hampshire, Minnesota, Ohio),

    So what does this all prove? Well, the point is that if Bush somehow won the election by rigging the vote then one would expect the opposite to occur. That is, one would have expected Bush’s vote to hold up better in the competitive states than in the non-competitive states. After all, if you are trying to rig an election you would only bother doing it in the states up for grabs. Right?

    Yet the opposite happened. Bush’s vote generally firmed more in non-competitive states than in competitive states. So if they rigged it, they must have gone to more effort in the non-competitive states. Why go to all that effort in states where the result is a foregone conclusion?

  16. Bill Quango MP
    November 4th, 2008 at 21:36 | #16

    Afghanistan is getting seriously ugly, so Bams first job is invade Pakistan, and make sure the Islamists dont get there hands on nukes and nuclear material. Afterall he said he would.

  17. Damocles
    November 4th, 2008 at 21:37 | #17

    SJ, I’m sure that Observa regularly refers to 47 year old best-selling authors who are also former University Professors and former senior counsels in law firms as boys.

  18. Damocles
    November 4th, 2008 at 21:44 | #18

    “Afterall he said he would.”

    Feel free to provide a link to support that claim.

  19. Nick K
    November 4th, 2008 at 21:50 | #19

    Ikonoklast says “I remember the 2004 poll where the Dems looked comfortable on the states map with early to mid-range counting”

    I think that early counting often favours Democrats because it is often the votes from the big cities that come in earlier than the votes from the outer suburbs and smaller towns. I have noticed this happens in Pennsylvania, where the votes from inner-city Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are often the first to come in.

    The funny thing is that with the US election coverage, they don’t seem to have the computer estimates that give a projected outcome which is adjusted based on where the votes are coming from (as they do in Australia).

    I remember watching the 2004 election coverage. Early on, the networks declared that Kerry had won Pennsylvania by a massive margin. Yet the eventual margin there was much closer. I recall the commentators saying that if Kerry did as well in Ohio and other states as he did in Pennsylvania, he would win comfortably.

    The other thing is that liberal media commentators often talk the results up for Democrats. Again in the 2004 election, when the results came in from New Jersey I remember one of the commentators talking about how well Kerry had done there among all constituencies. Yet Kerry only won the state by 7 points. And this was a state that Al Gore had won previously by 16 points. So how anyone could see this as a positive omen for Kerry I will never know.

  20. SJ
    November 4th, 2008 at 22:02 | #20

    Nick K Says: “liberal media commentators”?

    You assert that these people exist in the U.S.? Who are they? Name some names.

  21. Nick K
    November 4th, 2008 at 22:07 | #21


    pretty well everyone who works for any of the networks other than Fox.

    For one, Gwen Ifill. She has actually written a book that is due to be published next year, called The Age of Obama, or something like that. That would tend to give her a vested interest in the election outcome. Yet she got a gig moderating one of the presidential debates. Unbelievable!

    Nice work if you can pull it off.

  22. SJ
    November 4th, 2008 at 22:16 | #22

    “pretty well everyone who works for any of the networks other than Fox [is a liberal media commentator]”

    That’s a good answer, and it serves to put your remarks in the proper context. Cheers. 🙂

  23. jquiggin
    November 4th, 2008 at 22:21 | #23

    I follow the US media pretty closely and I didn’t recognise Gwen Ifill’s name. It turns out she works for PBS, which is pretty marginal in the US context.

    To be serious, I don’t deny that there are leftish commentators in the US media, and I don’t see anything wrong with them stating their views, just as their rightwing counterparts do with such vigor. But the idea that leftists dominate the media is wrong (I don’t use the term “liberal” which seems to be largely meaningless, given that in this context, it’s consistent with slavish support for GWB, at least as long as he was doing well.

    Or maybe you can point to the vast legion of liberal US media that whipped up public opposition to the Iraq War and called Bush a liar when he claimed proof of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (BTW, how did that turn out?).

  24. Nick K
    November 4th, 2008 at 22:56 | #24

    John, in the lead-up to the Iraq War I actually agree that the US media should have been more skeptical of the case for war. They probably should have been more critical of certain other aspects of the execution of the war on terror, such as the Patriot Act.

    But I don’t really see that as evidence of right-wing bias. Rather, it is simply that the media were responding to public opinion and the dominant mood at the time. Back then a lot more people believed Saddam was a bigger threat than he ever really was. Moreover, public opinion then was a lot more pro-Bush and a lot more strident in combatting any perceived threats.

    There are plenty of occasions where the media respond opportunistically to short-term issues and the general mood at the time. But this often has little to do with the broader sympathies and biases of the reporters and commentators. So I don’t believe the Iraq war issue is a good litmus test.

    This year the US media has barracked shamelessly for Obama (excuse the pun), right from the primaries with Hillary onwards. And they have gone to great lengths to downplay a lot of Obama’s less savoury associations.

    BTW: If you are looking for a GW apologist to debate against, I’m afraid that is not me. I am a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and a foreign policy realist. Everything that Bush isn’t.

    Indeed, it is Bush’s big government conservatism, catering to the religious right and excessive emphasis on the cultural wars, plus foreign policy blunders that have destroyed American conservatism and the Republican brand.

    What the US Republicans have sorely needed these past four years is for the economic conservative and socially moderate wing to take over the party. This is largely the Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarznegger section of the party. I have been thinking this since at least the 2004 election, after which many others expressed similar sentiment.

  25. SJ
    November 4th, 2008 at 23:00 | #25

    That’s some pretty amazing bubble you live in, Nick. 🙂

  26. Donald Oats
    November 4th, 2008 at 23:17 | #26

    Re #6: Reckon Bush’ll pardon Scooter? And any CEOs that have fallen foul of the law? Perhaps a few soldiers who were naughty in Abu Graib?

    As for the new president, if it is Obama, he sure has some work ahead of him. Re-un-nationalising half of the banking sector for one…..doing something about debt, empty houses that could have been homes, and other stuff that is too piffling for a “serious” Republican to worry about.

    PS: AWB needs a proper investigation.

  27. observa
    November 4th, 2008 at 23:18 | #27

    Oops, I forgot we still have the hypersensitive PC crowd. I’d have called him a ‘boy’ if he was white cf say McCain and say Lazarus with a triple bypass and even Biden sticking their hands up, in terms of age and political experience. Ditto Chinese leaders too and some of those old Communists (Jeez they even keep em like Psycho’s mum) Just inferring that with his youthful looks and given the problems he faces, it’ll be interesting to see if he he has my much elder grey hairs in 4 yrs time, let alone a McCains or zilch like a Kruschev. Politics and the nature of the task does age some very quickly.

  28. silkworm
    November 4th, 2008 at 23:27 | #28

    It has been suggested that if the Dems don’t get the magic number 60 for the senate, Obama can always appoint sympathetic Repub senators to his administration. This would allow the Dem state governors to appoint Dems to the senate to make up the 60 as needed.

  29. observa
    November 4th, 2008 at 23:30 | #29

    err..make ‘my much elder grey hairs’ my more distinguished hair. Hey this PC stuff is OK!

  30. sean
    November 5th, 2008 at 00:03 | #30

    16, happy to oblige

    Why Obama Didn’t Visit Pakistan,8599,1827922,00.html

    Obama warns Pakistan on al-Qaeda

    Obama willing to invade Pakistan in al-Qaeda hunt

    Plenty more, just google Obama and Pakistan and select news.

  31. sean
    November 5th, 2008 at 00:09 | #31

    Once again guilty of seeing what you only want to see.

    Fact, 90 Dems voted against the bailout of which around 75 are nailed on Fiscal conservatives, and indeed politically small c conservatives.

    US politics is about partnership and has always been the case, also the reason Bush could not reform Fannie and Freddie in time sadly.

  32. sean
    November 5th, 2008 at 00:20 | #32

    Hmmm Looks like Bam will have to deal with Hayeks revenge next year.

    Funding the National Debt

  33. Damocles
    November 5th, 2008 at 00:56 | #33

    Sean, it seems to nm that here is a difference between limited strikes at specific terrorist targets inside Pakistan and invading Pakistan.

    As a quick analogy, do you think Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli constituted an invasion of Libya?

    If you disagree, please explain why by your criterion the Bush administration hasn’t already committed an invasion of Pakistan.

  34. El Mono
    November 5th, 2008 at 01:17 | #34

    At least elections can only be rigged in America if they are close…..

    Honestly though i do not think there is anything that the Republicans are more capable and wiling then the Democrats to do.

  35. November 5th, 2008 at 02:50 | #35

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008
    “We’re going to make history today,â€? he said.”
    Wonderful post from Floyd Norris today:

    “I went to vote this morning, arriving at the Caton School in Brooklyn at 5:55 a.m. I have been voting at that school’s gym since 1984, and have never had to stand in line behind more than one or two people.

    This morning, there were about 90 people in line ahead of me, waiting for the polls to open at 6 a.m. Some had brought folding chairs.

    My area is, and has been since I moved here, predominantly black, and most of the people in line were black. There were a lot of “wows� as new people arrived and saw lines they had never seen before.

    The 40ish black man standing next to me in line told me it was the first time he had registered or voted. “We’re going to make history today,â€? he said.”

    God I hope so.

  36. sean
    November 5th, 2008 at 04:52 | #36

    Lets see we have a divided bankrupt nation at the epicenter of islamist theology, lawless and even the authorities are also split down ideological lines. And the reach of the current crisis is spreading into India.

    Do you think for one second that any american president will sit back and watch a nuclear armed country thats own regions are causing untold conflict far from its boarders are going to be allowed to get any where near running in large part a country like Pakistan? I don’t tell me that is not going to happen, there is in effect a civil war going on there.

    British intelligence put the odds at a regional conflict in Georgia as highly likely in 2008 earlier this year, they tip the same for Pakistan.

    read between the lines and think what is this man not saying but implying?

    Mark my words Pakistan will be the issue of 2009 just as the banking crisis has this year, the clock is ticking.

  37. November 5th, 2008 at 05:27 | #37

    Pr Q says:

    The situation when Obama takes over will be one of huge challenges and huge opportunities. The challenges are obvious: the economy in a gigantic mess, a string of foreign policy disasters and military misadventures and a deeply divided country. Only changes that are both radical and well designed will fix these problems, and this is a difficult combination to pull off.

    Are irony alerts to be enabled or disabled for reading this post? Since the WSJ is not mentioned I will treat it earnestly.

    Before Obama became a household name I predicted a landslide (53%+) victory for the DEMs in the Presidential elections, largely on psephological rather than ideological grounds. That is his candidacy coincides with recessional contra-REP phase of both political and economic cycles. It would be unwise for political enthusiasts to jump to grand seachanging conclusions from his landslide victory.

    THere is probably a significant Leftward ideological trend in play overlaying the psephological cycles. SO Obama will have a mandate to move the state back towards the Centre on Class War and Civilizational Clash issues like social inequity of fiscal regressive tax rates, the national insecurity of unilateral militarism and the financial instability of liberalised capitalism.

    But I would be wary of any assuming that the USA has jumped towards a USE style social democratic state. Obama’s his gentlemanly black personality will be a bigger winner than generic DEM social democratic policy. I therefore predict that Obama’s presidential vote will exceed the DEMs congressional vote.

    Obama has rather pointedly avoided any blanket committment to universal health care, which is identified with socialism by a fairly large number of white Americanss. Never forget that race is the stumbling block for universal ideological programs in the USA. CLinton made the mistake of ignoring that.

    Obama is a canny fellow with good timing (one of Napolean’s “lucky generals”?). He will not fall for the same trap.

    So for the first term Obama will be more janitor cleaning up the mess rather than Messiah leading the way to the New Jerusalem. Wait for the second term for any grand archetectronic ideological platforms.

  38. November 5th, 2008 at 06:17 | #38

    John, you left out what’s arguably the most important of the lot in the long-term – negotiating a successor to Kyoto that might actually lead to substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

    The financial crisis will sort itself out sooner or later. Climate change won’t.

  39. jquiggin
    November 5th, 2008 at 07:12 | #39

    Quite right, Robert. I’ll edit and fix this.

  40. gerard
    November 5th, 2008 at 08:14 | #40

    arghghagh!!! Exam tomorrow, but how am I supposed to get any study done… dirty tricks and a f*cked up electoral system can still pull this off for McCain … I’ve never been so obsessed with any Australian election, this suspense is AGONY. Come on 2pm!!

  41. November 5th, 2008 at 09:52 | #41

    spiros, i don’t remember ‘collateral damage’ in the the viet war. it would have been superfluous, as every living thing was a legitimate target in ‘free-fire zones’.

    there was a charming frankness in american terminology in bygone times.

  42. tin tin
    November 5th, 2008 at 10:34 | #42

    “la moral de la revolucion esta tan alta como las estrellas”

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