Barack Hussein Hoover?

Barack Obama really needs to decide who he wants to be when he grows up. He came into office with Franklin D. Roosevelt as a role model, seeking to save the American economy and the world from another Depression. In some ways, in fact, Obama wanted to outdo FDR: he appointed a Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, who has consistently warned against making the same mistakes that Roosevelt and the Fed made in 1937, when they cut back on spending and tightened rates before the country had pulled out of its downturn. Now, at a time when many economists say the jobless recovery will remain just that unless there is more federal stimulus, Obama is saying he does, actually, want to go back to 1937, or maybe even 1933. He wants to be Herbert Hoover and focus on deficit reduction.

Let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that his sudden focus on the projected $1.35 trillion deficit is just more political theater at a time when the president is desperately scrambling to win back the public favor that now seems like a distant memory. Still stunned by the GOP seizure of Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat last week, Obama is tacking back toward the center once occupied by the fiscally responsible Democrats of the Clinton Administration.

But if this is just political posturing, it’s a dangerous game. With unemployment still in double digits and lending and investment dragging, consumption is not coming back any time soon. Nor is it likely to, and some economists like Joseph Stiglitz are warning of a double-dip recession. American households have lost some $13 trillion in wealth since 2007. Stiglitz says that states—likely front-line victims of a cut in discretionary funding--already face a $200 billion shortfall in 2010. As a result, states and local governments are already planning to do a lot of program cutting themselves.

Yes, the federal deficit is like a giant tumor growing on the economy; it will need to be treated seriously in the years ahead. But the current state of the economic “recovery,” as one might loosely term it, is far more urgent, a gaping chest wound. Simply letting it continue to hemorrhage is a pretty big risk to be taking right right now in hopes of winning back votes the Republicans have already taken away.

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