Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The change we can realistically expect

Today is a proud and profound moment in American history.

But shortly after being sworn in, Barack Obama will go from "the change we've been waiting for" to "the change we expect right now". Ed Glaeser has some wise words on what we can and should expect from the new president:
"Americans cannot afford to treat the president as their personal ideological champion, or to judge him on economic conditions that he cannot control. Let’s hope that this president is as competent as he seems, and let’s judge him on that competence."
There is a strong tendency to give presidents too much credit (or blame) for economic conditions. Glaeser cites research suggesting that people tend to base their votes on the economic growth performance of the president's first three years--I assume this refers to economic conditions in general, not that people are pouring over GDP data while waiting in line to vote.

Politicians promise more than they can deliver and people expect it. But there is real danger in that. One of President Bush's failings was being overly ambitious, taking on the democratization of the Middle East and overhauling Social Security at the same time, ultimately not accomplishing either. Hopefully the Obama administration will avoid this pitfall. Their task is to set a realistic and attainable agenda and look for the places where government action is the most effective.

Obama is a smart, thoughtful, and capable person. He has the chance to be a great president. But there's only so much even a great president can accomplish.

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