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PW logo Gregg Backs Out Dodd Will Write Book on Financial Crisis
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News from the Votemaster

Happy Birthday Abe

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, whom most historians rank as the greatest President ever. And those who don't put him at #1, generally put him at #2, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A prerequisite to being rated as an all-time great President is inheriting an all-time great crisis. While Barack Obama has inherited a serious problem, unless things get a lot worse, he's going to have a tough time displacing Honest Abe.

Conferees Agree on a $789 Billion Stimulus Bill

Normally when the Senate and House pass different versions of a bill, the members of the joint conference split the difference, but this time the final bill was slightly smaller than either of the bills, mostly so the three Senate Republicans whose votes are crucial could boast that they kept the bill under $800 billion. When originally conceived late last Fall, people were talking about a $300 billion injection into the economy. This bill, which both chambers of Congress are expected to approve this week, marks a huge political victory for President Obama. He has only been in office a bit over 3 weeks and already made good on two of his biggest campaign promises: a middle class tax cut and a bill to stimulate the economy with the hope of creating 3.5 million jobs. The bill is popular in the country and any Republican who walks around in a T-shirt saying "I voted no" is not likely to pick up any new voters as a result.

The bill, which is a bit of a grab bag, contains four major categories of items. First, are tax cuts for individuals and businesses, second are investments in health care and alternative energy, third are shovel-ready infrastructure projects, and fourth are payments to the states to help them with their financial problems, including aid to people out of work.

Although Obama will be given much of the credit for the bill, the guy down there in the trenches who did much of the heavy lifting was Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff. In fact, Emanuel spent so much time on The Hill that one congressman had to remind a reporter that Emanuel was no longer a member of the House of Representatives. Emanuel's power lies in the fact that he knows everybody and has a very good sense of how Congress works, what is doable, and what is not doable. And, of course, he can speak for the President. He also knows that his role is to make things happen, crediting his boss with the successes and personally taking the blame for the failures. Even Karl Rove, master strategist that he was, didn't spend his days buttonholing congressmen one at a time trying to get bills through. Emanuel is a force to be reckoned with for the coming four years.

While some on the left have attacked Obama for giving in to the three Senate Republicans who cut over $100 billion in aid to the states and education out of the package, all in all he comes out of this as a powerful President who is in charge and makes things happen. Three weeks into his presidency he got the biggest stimulus bill in memory, probably in history, through Congress in record time, in more or less the form he wanted it. If the economy picks up in the next year and a half, he and the Democrats will get all the credit since no House Republicans and only three Senate Republicans signed on. If the economy is in the toilet in Nov. 2010, the Democrats will get blamed, of course. Thus for the Republicans, all they can do is pray (quietly) that economy continues to get worse and there is no recovery. It is not known if God accepts prayers for failure as readily as prayers for success, but the Republicans don't have many options right now.

TARP-II is Next on the Agenda

The next item on the agenda is TARP-II. When Timothy Geithner launched his plan on Tuesday, the Dow dropped 4.6% in response. The plan seems to consist of giving the banks a couple of trillion dollars and not asking anything much in return. At least for the stimulus bill, while also large, people know exactly what they are buying--in great detail. Here it is totally vague. Part of the problem is that Geithner is a central banker and thus thinks of centralized solutions involving banks. It is his only mind set. Many Republicans opposed TARP-I and likely even more, as well as many Democrats, will probably oppose TARP-II.

But there are also bottom-up approaches, not just top-down ones. It requires thinking out of the box. For example, imagine that the government goes to a hard-pressed homeowner and says: "Look, you bought your home for $500,000 and it is now worth $360,000 and you have a $400,000 mortgage you can't pay. We'll buy (say), a quarter of your home for $90,000. You take the $90,000 and use it to pay off part of your mortgage, reducing it to $310,000, thus resulting in lower monthly payments. And maybe the bank would be required to lower the interest rate as part of the deal. When you sell the house later, the government gets 1/4 of the proceeds." Something like this would (1) keep the owner in his house, (2) give the bank badly needed working capital, and (3) give the government a decent chance of recouping all its money over time, maybe even at a profit if housing prices eventually rise. But so far, nothing like this has been proposed. It is just "throw money at the banks and pray." But Congress might not bite, forcing a bit more creativity on the administration.

Talent Not Running in Missouri

Former senator Jim Talent (R) has stated that he will not be a candidate for the open Senate seat being vacated by Kit Bond in 2010. This announcement clears the way for a bitter two-way primary between state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) and Rep. Roy Blunt (R). The Democratic candidate is likely to be Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who will most likely avoid a bruising primary. Talent's announcement increases the chances of the Democrats picking up this seat, since he is much better known than either of the remaining candidates.

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