Waiting for Obama

The President-elect dodges a question about tax increases.

Barack Obama held his first press conference as President-elect yesterday, projecting an aura of authority and reassurance on the economy but without giving a clear sense of policy direction. Financial markets are likely to remain volatile and frightened until we see how and if the recession is tempering Mr. Obama’s campaign agenda.

[Review & Outlook] AP

All the more so after Friday’s miserable report on October jobs. These reports don’t get much worse than a loss of 240,000 jobs in a single month, with downward revisions for August and September combined of minus 179,000 more. The unemployment rate rose to 6.5% from 6.1%, and the rate has now climbed by 1.5 percentage points in the last six months. That’s the fastest climb over a comparable period since the recession of 1982, when the jobless rate hit 10.8%.

The losses reflect the wall that the economy slammed into when the financial panic accelerated in mid-September. The credit seizure essentially knocked the economy out. Banks across the country have tightened credit standards, when they are lending at all, and capital is sitting on the sidelines waiting for a sense that the worst is over.

The global nature of the panic is also clear in the jobless figures, as manufacturing payrolls fell 90,000. For much of this year exports had been a bright spot, including for manufactured goods, but now Europe, Japan and much of the rest of the world are also heading into recession. So much for those economists — at the Federal Reserve and at Harvard — who thought that by debasing the dollar the U.S. could steal demand from the rest of the world.

The stock market selloff that greeted Mr. Obama’s election this week is another sign of these gloomy realities. On Wednesday and Thursday combined, the Dow fell 9.7% before rallying some on Friday. Hedge funds are still deleveraging, as investors seek redemptions in order to return to cash, forcing the funds to sell stocks to meet those redemptions. Cash is king when no one can see the bottom.

Which brings us to Mr. Obama’s comments, which didn’t reveal all that much after he had met with his economic advisory team. The lineup of advisers behind the President-elect also required a little Kremlinology to read. On the reassuring side was Paul Volcker, the former Fed Chairman, and Richard Parsons, former CEO and now chairman of Time Warner.

On the not so reassuring: Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, whose tax and spend policies have only worsened her state’s economic plight; David Bonior, the former Congressman who helped turn John Edwards into a class warrior; and William Donaldson, whose tenure as SEC Chairman under President Bush is a case study in heavier but feckless regulation. Let’s hope they were on hand for political show.

Mr. Obama himself stayed on familiar campaign territory, calling for an early “stimulus” but without saying what such a bill should include beyond more federal spending for jobless benefits, for states and cities, and for the auto industry. He wasn’t asked about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s intriguing suggestion this week that any stimulus early next year should include a “permanent” tax cut. This is intellectual progress, after the failure of this year’s bipartisan temporary tax rebates, though the nature of any tax cut will count for a great deal.

The President-elect dodged a question about whether he might abandon his plans to raise taxes on upper-incomes. The bad news is that he replied that he thinks his campaign agenda (which includes a huge tax increase on “the rich”) is still the best policy blueprint. The good news is he didn’t expressly say he’d insist on tax increases, leaving himself some running room.

Mr. Obama will take office with an enormous amount of goodwill, but good feeling alone won’t bring lending and risk-taking back to the economy. Americans are waiting to see if their President-elect is going to be the class warrior he sometimes was in the campaign, or push a pro-growth agenda that can get cash off the sidelines and moderate the recession.

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