Economists Prefer Policies of Obama Over McCain and Bush

From a survey in the conservative news magazine The Economist it appears that many economists, regardless of party affiliation, agree with the view I have expressed many times, most recently here, that the economic policies of the Republican Party are neither sound policies or policies based upon support for free market principles. A poll of economists has given Obama consistently higher grades than McCain, with George Bush receiving extremely poor grades:

The detailed responses are bad news for Mr McCain (the full data are available here). Eighty per cent of respondents and no fewer than 71% of those who do not cleave to either main party say Mr Obama has a better grasp of economics. Even among Republicans Mr Obama has the edge: 46% versus 23% say Mr Obama has the better grasp of the subject. “I take McCain’s word on this one,” comments James Harrigan at the University of Virginia, a reference to Mr McCain’s infamous confession that he does not know as much about economics as he should. In fairness, Mr McCain’s lower grade may in part reflect greater candour about his weaknesses. Mr Obama’s more tightly managed image leaves fewer opportunities for such unvarnished introspection.

A candidate’s economic expertise may matter rather less if he surrounds himself with clever advisers. Unfortunately for Mr McCain, 81% of all respondents reckon Mr Obama is more likely to do that; among unaffiliated respondents, 71% say so. That is despite praise across party lines for the excellent Doug Holtz-Eakin, Mr McCain’s most prominent economic adviser and a former head of the Congressional Budget Office. “Although I have tended to vote Republican,” one reply says, “the Democrats have a deep pool of talented, moderate economists.”

There is an apparent contradiction between most economists’ support for free trade, low taxes and less intervention in the market and the low marks many give to Mr McCain, who is generally more supportive of those things than Mr Obama. It probably reflects a perception that the Republican Party under George Bush has subverted many of those ideals for ideology and political gain. Indeed, the majority of respondents rate Mr Bush’s economic record as very bad, and Republican respondents are only slightly less critical.

“John McCain has professed disdain for ‘so-called economists’, and for some the feeling has become mutual,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management. “Obama’s team is mainstream and non-ideological but extremely talented.”

On our one-to-five scale, economists on average give Mr Obama’s economic programme a 3.3 and Mr McCain’s a 2.2. Mr Obama, says Jonathan Parker, a non-aligned professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, “is a pragmatist not an ideologue. I expect Clintonian economic policies.” If, that is, crushing federal debt does not derail his taxing and spending plans.

On his plans to fix the financial crisis, Mr Obama averages 3.1, a point higher than Mr McCain. Still, some said they didn’t quite know what they were rating—reasonably enough, since neither candidate has produced clear plans of his own.

Where the candidates’ positions are more clearly articulated, Mr Obama scores better on nearly every issue: promoting fiscal discipline, energy policy, reducing the number of people without health insurance, controlling health-care costs, reforming financial regulation and boosting long-run economic growth. Twice as many economists think Mr McCain’s plan would be bad or very bad for long-run growth as Mr Obama’s. Given how much focus Mr McCain has put on his plan’s benefits for growth, this last is quite a repudiation.

Mr McCain gets his highest mark, an average of 3.5 and a clear advantage over Mr Obama, for his position on free trade and globalisation. If Mr Obama “would wake up on free trade”, one respondent says, “I could get behind the plans much more.” Perhaps surprisingly, the economists rated trade low in priority compared with the other issues listed. Only 53% say it is important or very important. Neither candidate scored at all well on dealing with the burgeoning cost of entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

The economists also prefer Mr Obama’s tax plans. Republicans and respondents who do not identify with either political party see Mr McCain’s tax policies as more efficient but less equitable. But the former prefer Mr McCain’s plans—43% of Republicans say they are good or very good—and the latter Mr Obama’s. Of non-affiliated respondents, 31% say Mr Obama’s are good or very good.

Either way, according to the economists, it would be difficult to do much worse than George Bush. The respondents give Mr Bush a dismal average of 1.7 on our five-point scale for his economic management. Eighty-two per cent thought Mr Bush’s record was bad or very bad; only 1% thought it was very good.

The Democrats were overwhelmingly negative, but nearly every respondent viewed Mr Bush’s record unfavourably. Half of Republican respondents thought Mr Bush deserves only a 2. “The minimum rating of one severely overestimates the quality of Bush’s economic policies,” says one non-aligned economist.

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