OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 11, 2008
Paul Krugman has written a number of pieces that are highly critical of Barack Obama. Krugman is a distinguished economist as well as an exceptional writer, and on issues of substance, he raises reasonable questions and offers plausible objections. But as many people have noticed, the tone and intensity of Krugman's pieces are puzzling. It seems almost personal--a kind of campaign. What accounts for this? I don't know the full answer, but here's a significant part of it: Krugman and Obama have different approaches to political disagreement. Krugman likes partisanship, and Obama does not. In a revealing column in January 2007, Krugman cited Obama's lament that "politics has become so bitter and partisan," and rejected the Senator's suggestion that we have to become less partisan in order to solve our problems. In Krugman's view, we need an FDR, not a consensus-seeking Eisenhower. Politicians have "to tackle the big problems despite bitter partisan opposition." Rejecting Obama's claim that we should begin with a new period of bipartisanship, Krugman quoted, with evident admiration, FDR's famous statement, in 1936, "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred." Krugman insisted that politicians who seek "a new New Deal" should welcome the hatred of the right. Obama doesn't hate those who disagree with him, and he does not welcome people's hatred. Krugman seems to hate that.In a December 2007 column in Slate, Krugman amplified his views about partisanship and polarization. He wrote that "any attempt to change America's direction, to implement a real progressive agenda, will necessarily be highly polarizing." He suggested that "what we need is partisanship." He lamented the idea that Democrats should "play nice." More specifically, he attributed Obama's "highly favorable coverage" in the press to a (misguided) longing "for an end to the polarization and partisanship of the Bush years." Krugman and Obama do appear to have a legitimate difference about strategy. Krugman thinks that problems cannot be solved without squarely accepting bitter opposition, while Obama thinks that problems are best solved by attempting to listen to opponents, to learn from them, and to defuse their opposition. But I doubt that Krugman's writings about Obama are adequately explained by a dispute about strategy. Undoubtedly Krugman is right on some issues, and surely Obama would, on those issues, be willing to fight for his commitments. Undoubtedly Obama is right on some issues, and surely Krugman would agree that some of the time, bipartisan approaches are best.I think that the difference between the two goes deeper, and that it is really one of temperament. This is a speculation, but it is not otherwise easy to explain Krugman's seemingly visceral hostility to Barack Obama.
--Cass R. Sunstein