Aug. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Tell me again why Barack Obama has been such a bad president? I’m not talking here about him as a tactician and communicator. We can agree that he has played some bad poker with Congress. And let’s stipulate that at the moment he’s falling short in the intangibles of leadership.
I’m thinking instead of that opening sequence in the show “Mission Impossible,” the one where Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves, gets his instructions.
Your mission, Jim (and readers named something else), should you decide to accept it, is to identify where Obama has been a poor decision-maker. What, specifically, has he done wrong on policy? What, specifically, would you have done differently to create jobs? And what can any of the current Republican candidates offer that would be an improvement on the employment front?
I’m not interested in hearing ad hominem attacks or about your generalized “disappointment.”
I want to know, on a substantive basis, why you think he deserves to be in a dead heat with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and only a few points ahead of Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann in a new Gallup Poll. Is it just that any president -- regardless of circumstances and party -- who presides over 9 percent unemployment deserves to lose?
Left, Right, Center
Every day you’re pummeling him from the right, left and middle. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham even attacked the president for letting Libyan rebels take Tripoli instead of burying Muammar Qaddafi under American bombs months ago. Here we have the best possible result -- the high probability of regime change for about one-thousandth of the cost of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and no bad feelings from the locals -- and Obama gets savaged anyway.
Like everyone else, I’ve got my list of Obama mistakes, from failing to break up the banks in early 2009 to neglecting to force a vote on ending the Bush tax cuts when the Democrats still controlled Congress. He shouldn’t have raised hopes with “Recovery Summer” and “Winning the Future” until the economy was more durable. I could go on.
But do these miscalculations really mean it’s time for him to go?
Most of the bad feeling goes back to the first year or so of the Obama presidency. And in hindsight, those decisions really weren’t so bad. To prove my point, let’s review a few areas where he supposedly messed up.
A Few Rebuttals
From the left: “He should have pushed for a much bigger stimulus in 2009.”
That’s the view of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, now gospel among liberals. It’s true economically but bears no relationship to the political truth of that period. Consider that in December 2008, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a hardcore liberal Democrat, proposed a $165 billion stimulus and said he would be ecstatic if it went to $300 billion. President-elect Obama wanted to go over $1 trillion but was told by House Democrats that it absolutely wouldn’t pass. In exchange for the votes of three Republicans in the Senate he needed for passage, Obama reduced the stimulus to $787 billion, which was still almost five times Rendell’s number and the largest amount that was politically possible.
From the right: “The stimulus and bailouts failed.”
When Obama took office, the economy was losing about 750,000 jobs a month and heading for another Great Depression. The recession ended (at least for a while) and we now are adding several thousand jobs a month -- anemic growth, but an awful lot better than the alternative. How did that happen? Luck?
Fed, Stimulus, TARP
All the bellyaching ignores that the Federal Reserve’s emergency policies stabilized the financial system, and that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the stimulus increased economic growth and saved or created millions of jobs. According to the Treasury Department, taxpayers will end up actually making money on the bank bailouts under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Obama inherited from the previous administration.
The Republican alternative for job creation wasn’t tax cuts (the stimulus contained almost $300 billion in tax cuts) but deficit reduction and rolling back regulation. I’ve yet to see a single economist convincingly argue how either would have reversed the catastrophic job losses.
From all sides: “He took his eye off jobs by pushing health care.”
Not really. Health care consumed enormous time and political capital in late 2009 and early 2010. But with the stimulus new and still being absorbed (with remarkably little scandal) into the American economy, it’s not as if health care distracted the president from another jobs program in that period. Sure, he should have rhetorically “pivoted to jobs” earlier, but substantively it wouldn’t have made much difference. And Republicans have offered no evidence for their claim that the Affordable Care Act (which includes tax credits for small businesses) has contributed to current levels of unemployment. How could it? The program hasn’t even fully begun yet.
The all-purpose explanation from the business community is “uncertainty.” We’re told that people, and enterprises, won’t invest because they aren’t sure about future taxes. This is a crock. “People invest to make money,” the noted lefty socialist Warren E. Buffett recently wrote in the New York Times, “and potential taxes have never scared them off.”
Again, from all sides: “He looked weak during the debt-limit debate.”
Yep. And if you were president and a group of extremists was pointing a gun at the head of the American economy, what would you have done? Invoking the 14th Amendment sounded satisfying, but a constitutional crisis layered on top of a debt-limit crisis would have been a fiasco, and probably would have ensured default as world markets spent months wondering who in the U.S. had the authority to pay our bills.
Elections involving incumbents are inevitably hire/fire decisions. With foreign policy mostly off the table, hiring a Republican means buying his or her jobs plan. Firing Obama means rejecting where he has come down on big decisions. He and Romney will unveil their jobs plans in September. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from Democrats, Republicans and especially independents who voted for Obama the last time but have given up on him now. Why?
Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to be specific and rational, not vague and visceral.
(Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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