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Obama's Anzio, Or Ben Nelson's?

Paul Krugman's column today is about how the stimulus was too small. I agree entirely. What I find puzzling is his apparent belief that the Obama administration is the primary culprit for this shortcoming. Here's Krugman:

But while health care won’t be Mr. Obama’s Waterloo, economic policy is starting to look like his Anzio. ...

President Obama came into office with a strong mandate and proclaimed the need to take bold action on the economy. His actual actions, however, were cautious rather than bold. ...

The president, then, having failed to exploit his early opportunities, is pinned down in his too-small beachhead.

If the Democrats lose badly in the midterms, the talking heads will say that Mr. Obama tried to do too much, this is a center-right nation, and so on. But the truth is that Mr. Obama put his agenda at risk by doing too little.

Emphasis mine. Krugman does make a nod toward the reality that getting a larger stimulus through the Senate might have been tough:

Administration officials would presumably argue that they were constrained by political realities, that a bolder policy couldn’t have passed Congress. But they never tested that assumption, and they also never gave any public indication that they were doing less than they wanted. The official line was that policy was just right, making it hard to explain now why more is needed.

Krugman's case that the administration didn't test the upper limits of what Congress would enact isn't exactly true--the Senate took his stimulus plan and whittled it down. It's possible that if Obama had submitted an even larger proposal to Congress, he would have gotten a larger plan in the end. On the other hand, it's also possible his plan would have collapsed entirely, or taken much longer to be enacted.

And yes, there's a case that the administration should have complained after the fact that the final product was too small. But there's also a counter-case, that the general atmosphere of liberal dissatisfaction with the stimulus, against the backdrop of conservative hysteria, made the whole enterprise more unpopular than necessary. If only there was more cheerleading, this argument goes, the stimulus would have been more popular, and the atmosphere for adding to it more receptive.

I don't have extremely strong opinions either way about the political calculus. Senate wrangling is tricky. What I find odd is that Krugman takes as a given that the White House blundered--this is the premise for most of his commentary on the stimulus. Meanwhile, the incontrovertible fact is that you can't spend one more dollar than Ben Nelson wants to spend, and there's no evidence that Nelson even understands the economic theory underpinning fiscal stimulus, let alone has any willingness to expend political capital on its behalf.

So everything that Krugman writes about what Obama should have done really meanss "what Obama should have done to persuade Ben Nelson to act differently." And Obama does have some influence over Nelson, but ultimately Nelson makes his own decisions.

Krugman's column employs a pretty good World War II analogy. Let me use another: imagine a scathing column about the 1938 Munich accord that devotes most of its energy to castigating Czechoslovakian President Edvard Benes for his ineffectual efforts to gain the support of Britain and France, rather than putting Britain and France at the center of the story.