Noam Scheiber

Senior Editor

For the past three years, Washington journalists and politicos have obsessed over a 57-page memo that Barack Obama’s incoming economic team prepared for him in late 2008. The document has achieved such totemic status for good reason: It decisively shaped the Obama administration’s initial response to the economic crisis. The memo outlined the president-elect’s options for dealing with the teetering banks, the cash-strapped automakers, and the country’s tidal wave of foreclosures.

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A question: Does it matter who wins the upcoming Michigan primary? I can only foresee two scenarios in which it does: First, if Romney were to lose to Santorum decisively, one could imagine the GOP establishment waking up the next morning and scouring the country for a white-knight alternative.

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At least on the left, by far the oldest and most energetically-debated question about Obama is whether his bipartisanship is naïve or shrewdly strategic (in addition to being sincere, which almost everyone concedes it is). Since at least 2007, battle-scarred liberals like Paul Krugman—and for that matter Hillary Clinton—have derided his bipartisan musings as gauzy blather at best and, at worst, dangerously provocative, since Republicans would exploit them.

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Obama’s Worst Year

Shortly after four o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 13, 2011, U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner walked down the hallway near his office toward a large conference room facing the building’s interior. He was accompanied by a retinue of counselors and aides. When they arrived in the room—known around Treasury simply as “the large”—four people were seated at a long walnut table on the side near the door.

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Watching the results trickle in last night—when Rick Santorum carried two of three contests and was closing in on the third—I couldn’t help feeling like we were back in Iowa. Back then, Santorum was surging, Newt Gingrich was fading, and Mitt Romney was laboring to improve on his 2008 vote totals.

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In that moment just before New Hampshire, when it was briefly possible to imagine Jon Huntsman fighting deep into the primaries, New York magazine’s John Heilemann made an astute observation. He pointed out that Huntsman’s real audience on election night wouldn’t be the country or the voters in other early states or even the political media. It would consist of exactly one person: Jon Huntsman Sr., the billionaire chemical magnate who, if the mood struck him, could take out his checkbook and completely upend the race. “An investment of, say, $10 million — a rounding error on the Huntsman Sr.

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This wasn’t the most exciting debate of the campaign. But it was the debate that best illustrated the underlying dynamic: Romney’s going to win, but he’ll be one of the most flawed candidates either party has nominated in recent memory.  To see this, look no further than last night’s installment of the recurring Freddie Mac dustup. Gingrich opened by lazily accusing Romney of investing in Freddie; Romney effortlessly parried the charge, explaining that he’d only invested in a mutual fund that bought shares in the company.

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Ever since last fall, when Obama began honing the more confrontational style he displayed in the State of the Union speech, his advisers have insisted that populism has always been part of the president's political persona, not something he only groped for after two-and-a-half years of Republican intransigence. As David Axelrod told Politico, “The viability of the middle class, and the opportunity to get ahead, has been a central cause of Obama’s life.”  It’s not that statements like this are untrue. It’s that they’re incomplete.

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The Inheritance

It’s not quite right to say that the hundreds of millions of dollars Mitt Romney amassed as a private equity baron were the cause of his South Carolina drubbing. But they didn’t exactly help, either. Newt Gingrich trounced the former Massachusetts governor among just about every demographic group that might nurse a grudge against a slick quarter-billionaire.

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Two quick thoughts about the Florida debate. First, while it was generally too flat and plodding to change any momentum, I think Romney learned something important tonight: He learned that he can provoke Gingrich into spouting all manner of nonsense—what a certain former House Speaker once called “pious baloney”—pretty much at will, just by pressing Newt on his influence-peddling days. No doubt the lobbying/Freddie Mac albatross will continue to weigh down Gingrich, just like the tax-return issue dogged Romney.

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