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Krugman: Obama More Transformative Than Clinton, Reagan


Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says he started out being out of sync with liberal opinion of Barack Obama. When the young senator from Illinois was the darling of liberal Democrats and commentators, Krugman was a skeptic.

Well, now in a cover story for Rolling Stone, Krugman completes the contrarian circle. President Obama is virtually persona non grata in tough democratic election races this year. Republicans tar their opponents with the number of times they voted with the president. But Paul Krugman writes in Rolling Stone, Barack Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and yes, successful presidents in American history.

And Paul Krugman joins us now. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Considering that a majority of Americans tell pollsters that they disapprove of President Obama's performance, by what measure is he succeeding?

KRUGMAN: You got to remember that being president, being a politician, is not supposed to be about being high in the polls and it isn't even necessarily about winning the next election. It's about getting stuff done. It's about changing America in the direction you want it to go and by God, we've got health reform, which is looking like a serious success. We've got a significant financial reform. We've got significant, although not enough, movement on the environment. But just health reform alone makes Barack Obama the biggest thing that's happened since Lyndon Johnson, at least if you're a liberal.

SIEGEL: But Obamacare - health reform - the biggest social benefit in decades, as you said, is actually more unpopular than the president is. Shouldn't a major benefit be welcomed by the public that it's been created to serve?

KRUGMAN: Two things there. The first is, a significant fraction of the people who say they don't support it actually don't support it 'cause they wanted something even more. They wanted Medicare for all. If you ask people, should be repealed, a majority says no.

SIEGEL: You write about financial regulation. Since the great financial crisis, no big Wall Street types have gone to prison. The regulatory response to what happened is tiny compared to what FDR created after the Great Depression and the crash of the markets. Couldn't there've been a little bit more dynamic response to things?

KRUGMAN: I would've liked to see some prosecutions. I would've liked to see tougher regulations. But this reform gets bad-mouthed much more than it deserves. It's not as tiny as people say. If it were that tiny, Wall Street wouldn't be spending so much money and trying to roll it back. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is real. So this is a reform that has got sort of a B-minus if you're grading it, but that's a whole lot better than no reform at all.

SIEGEL: Was getting to 6 percent unemployment - or a tad below - over six years, is that a successful measure of dealing with the Great Recession?

KRUGMAN: No. I think could've done more in the first two years. Compared to the European Union, we're actually doing better. So you have to be able to hold in your mind both the fact that it's been pretty awful and the fact that actually, historically, overlooking across the world right now we're actually the standouts as having done, you know, less terribly than as is - unfortunately - the norm in these things.

SIEGEL: There's a word that's used about Ronald Reagan - and I think Bill Clinton aspired to this designation - being a transformative president. Do you think Barack Obama is a transformative president? Is the country significantly different because of his leadership, do you think, over whatever it will be - eight years?

KRUGMAN: Yeah. In fact, I would say that Obama is much more of a transformative president than either Clinton or Reagan.

Clinton, although he emerged from his time very popular, in the end - well, he didn't get health care reform. He did not leave lasting institutional changes in American society.

And Reagan, although, you know, he's practically deified on the right, we still had Social Security, we still had Medicare. We still had the essential structure of U.S. government that FDR and LBJ left behind. Reagan did not manage to change that, whereas Obama has left us as a country, which more or less, has the universal guarantee of health insurance. So no, it's an odd thing. No one will believe it, but if you're asking about really having transformed America, Obama is the leader among those three presidents.

SIEGEL: Just one other point about the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act. You've offered an explanation of that, but given Barack Obama's gift for oratory and what an effective campaigner he has been, shouldn't there be some dimension of leadership that would effectively make the argument to people that this is indeed a very good bill? That is, can we attribute to him some inability to articulate what's so good about his major achievement?

KRUGMAN: No question. If you were paying attention during the 2012 Democratic Convention, Bill Clinton did a much better job of defending Obama's policies than Obama did. But 20 years from now we won't remember whether Obama was really good at explaining it. We'll remember that it happened, that we got this reform. And surely that's what really matters.

SIEGEL: Paul Krugman, author of the cover story in Rolling Stone, "In Defense Of Obama."

Thank you very much for talking with us.

KRUGMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.