The problem with Obama

The economist and <em>New York Times</em> columnist Paul Krugman’s damning verdict.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, one of America's leading liberal commentators, used his New York Times column yesterday to issue a devastating crititique of Barack Obama in the wake of the president's decision, on Monday, to introduce a pay freeze for federal government workers across the United States.

The Princeton professor describes the move as "a (literally) cheap trick . . . slashing federal spending at a time when the economy is depressed is exactly the wrong thing to do".

But it is his analysis of the politics, not the economics, of the issue that stands out in his column. Krugman writes:

Mr Obama's pay ploy might, just might, have been justified if he had used the announcement of a freeze as an occasion to take a strong stand against Republican demands – to declare that at a time when deficits are an important issue, tax breaks for the wealthiest aren't acceptable.

But he didn't. Instead, he apparently intended the pay freeze announcement as a peace gesture to Republicans the day before a bipartisan summit. At that meeting, Mr Obama, who has faced two years of complete scorched-earth opposition, declared that he had failed to reach out sufficiently to his implacable enemies. He did not, as far as anyone knows, wear a sign on his back saying "Kick me", although he might as well have.

There were no comparable gestures from the other side. Instead, Senate Republicans declared that none of the rest of the legislation on the table – legislation that includes such things as a strategic arms treaty that's vital to national security – would be acted on until the tax-cut issue was resolved, presumably on their terms.

It's hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr Obama's measure – that they're calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it's also hard to escape the impression that they're right.

To be fair, Krugman was never a big supporter of Obama; he backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008. But it's difficult to disagree with his stinging conclusion:

Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse – a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.