Good Intentions, Incompetent Execution

The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery

This book is another look at how the Obama administration handle the economic crisis it inherited. And like every other, it paints a picture of people not up to the job.

Like other books that have reported on the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, this is not a Republican hit piece. The author writes for The New Republic (which may not be Mother Jones, but it is liberal). The missed opportunities are called out even more than a dispassionate review would do because the author clearly wanted to see Obama be successful.

The presidency is arguably the hardest job on earth. Very very few are up to the challenge. It does not denigrate Barack Obama in any way to say he is not able to execute well in the job. And in some cases his weaknesses in the job speak well of him as a human being.

We also, to quote Lincoln on McClellan, do not have the option of replacing him with anyone. Our choice is Obama or Romney. And on that measure Obama is far superior because good intentions with inept administration beats the snot out of bad ides corruptly implemented.

But we also need to face up to the fact that our best option is 4 more years of governmental fiddling while the economy remains mired in recession and peoples lives are damaged.

It was, perhaps, the ultimate referendum on two and a half years of Obama policy making. Traders and investors had sized up the forces dragging down the economy and weighed them alongside everything the administration had done to prop it up. And they were suddenly terrified that the second was vastly overmatched by the first.

Second, the Jobs Act punctuated the chronic confusion about the connection between politics and governing. Too often, the two activities were treated as an either-or proposition in the West Wing. Obama generally believed the way to pass his program was to engage earnestly with the opposition, not take his case public. A president never has more leverage with Congress than when he’s riling up voters, but Obama rarely exploited the massive stature of his office as a tool for influencing legislation. During the making of the original stimulus in 2009, during the initial push for health care reform that spring and summer, during the bargaining over the Bush tax cuts in late 2010, and during much of the deficit dalliance in 2011, Obama did little to make life uncomfortable for the Republicans he was negotiating with. Only in the final few weeks of the debt ceiling negotiations did he take his case public-with encouraging results. But by then the GOP was dug in.

Finally, the Jobs Act revealed that the Obama White House never grasped quite how closely its fate was tied to the labor market. This misunderstanding dated all the way back to the transition, when the president-elect stuck with his otherwise noble ambitions on health care and the environment rather than switching his focus to jobs. The misunderstanding continued during the fall of 2009, when Obama took his first fateful step into the no-man’s-land of deficit cutting and shortchanged additional stimulus. After the president made penny-pinching the cause of his third year in office, the White House rejoiced when polls showed that voters favored Obama’s approach to budget cuts over the Republicans’. It seemed tragically unaware that, however impressive Obama’s margins on these questions were, they were also mostly irrelevant because truly up-for-grabs voters base their views of the president on the availability of work.

In this way, devising a bold jobs plan was plainly helpful to Obama. But it was still a poor substitute for enacting a jobs plan, at least as time went by. The same Washington Post poll that showed voters favoring Obama over the GOP on job creation in early October showed the two sides dead even by early November-exactly where they had been when the effort began.

Though the challenges facing it were indeed enormous, the administration resorted to shoulder-shrugging professions of futility too often during Obama’s first term. The president still had enormous power to affect the economy for the better. Suppose, for example, that Obama had proposed his September 2011 jobs plan in the spring of 2010 and sold it just as relentlessly. At the time, Democrats still comfortably ruled both houses of Congress. Given that the unemployment rate was even higher (9.5 versus 9.1 percent), and that the economy was visibly deteriorating as Europe devolved into turmoil, it’s hard to believe the popular reception would have been less enthusiastic. Assuming that conservative Democrats eventually fell in line-a plausible assumption given their worship of polls, if less than airtight-Obama would have needed to pick off a single Republican senator, something his determined barnstorming might well have accomplished.

Still, it was, finally, Obama’s decision not to demand bold action sooner, at least not on the economic front. The president spent 2009 waging a historically important and ultimately successful campaign for health care reform. Given the circumstances, however, the effort might have been better spent fast-tracking tough-minded financial reform. This would have satisfied the country’s legitimate hunger for change on Wall Street. And, by defusing some of the populist anger that voters soon trained on the government, the strategy also might have improved Obama’s chances of delivering another major course of stimulus.

But, then, it’s not clear Obama would have seized the opportunity to pass another large stimulus. He spent much of his first term more taken with the case against deficits than with the case for jobs. Thus a president who had run for office as a genuine outsider, who had campaigned against the most destructive practices and preoccupations of the nation’s capital, embraced the hoariest of Washington’s old saws: that the American people are so offended by out-of-control government that they would insist on scaling it back even at a cost to their own livelihoods in a time of deep economic unease. This was an article of faith among the city’s grayest establishmentarians-the editorialists and the think-tank denizens, the people who largely dismissed Barack Obama when he took his first halting steps toward the White House. That it came to define the Obama administration is the most dispiriting irony of his presidency.

2 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. dwyer says:

    Thanks for the information.

  2. MADCO says:

    How can you believe anything Noam Scheiber writes?

    He has a Master’s degree in Economics from Oxford – where they teach that the US Federal Reserve is the central bank of the US, controlling monetary policy (interest rates and money supply) but is not a part of the US government but is, by law, owned by the member banks and operated as twelve separate, independent,  regional banks. According to you, he is oblivious to the reality of the Federal Reserve.

Leave a Reply

Comment from your Facebook account

You may comment with your Colorado Pols account above (click here to register), or via Facebook below.