Blaming the President for Unemployment

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I often enjoy Charles Blow's By the Numbers blog at the New York Times, but I think this op-ed from last Friday was a little over the top:

Right now," "immediate economic emergency," "requires urgent action," "can't wait." Wow! He gave the impression that job creation would be his top priority, that action would be swift and effective, that his solutions would not only stanch the hemorrhaging, but reverse the trend.

Fast forward. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment figures for October 2009. The official rate was 10.2 percent, up more than 50 percent from the time Obama gave that speech. Oops, nevermind.

(By the way, the underemployment rate, which includes part-time workers who want to work full time and those who've given up searching, is a staggering 17.5 percent.)

Job creation has dropped from top priority to one of many, and President Obama has been remanded to pandering for patience and offering excuses. On the one hand, he argues the tortured rationale that there is good news in the awful numbers: Things are still getting worse but at a slower pace. On the other, he incessantly reminds us that he inherited the crisis. The implication: Don't blame me, blame Bush.

But this president can't keep deflecting to the last one. Pain is presently felt. The crisis that took form on Bush's watch is being experienced on Obama's. Fair or not, finger-pointing is not effective policy.

This is now Obama's crisis, and it carries political consequences. During Tuesday's gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, nearly 9 in 10 voters said that they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy in the next year. And the majority of those who held that view voted for the Republican candidates. This could portend a flashback to 1994.

It isn't President Obama's fault that he inherited this mess, but it is his to fix, and he must make haste.

What exactly is he supposed to do to create all these jobs? Use the book proceeds to buy a Dairy Queen franchise?

The president has very little control over employment in the economy.  The stimulus undoubtedly kept the economy from losing even more jobs than he did.  But the economy is undergoing a hell of a deep structural adjustment:  from debtors to savers, from housing-and-finance led growth to . . . well, if we knew that, the recession would already be over.  Those adjustments need to happen, because the previous situation was totally unsustainable.  But they definitionally imply higher unemployment and less consumer demand in the short run. 

A third stimulus might lower the unemployment rate a little, at least from where it would otherwise be.  But it would not put us back at 5% unemployment, and it would have a lot of other costs, including further risking our AAA bond rating. Stimulus is at best an incredibly blunt instrument.  And it is made blunter by all of the procedural checks we've accumulated over decades of government growth, not to mention very powerful public sector unions.  FDR could tell his government to go out and hire people to paint hallways or build dams.  The current president needs Environmental Impact Statements, public review periods, and the okay of ACFSME. 

The fact is, most of the time, the best the president can do is avoid making things much worse.  And though I have many disagreements with the specifics of Obama's policies, I'd say that largely, he's kept from making stuff worse, and eased the worst of the damage on hurting families.  We could be doing more with more generous unemployment benefits or other income assistance, less with atrocious auto bailouts.  But the economics of recession is truly a dismal science, and demanding that the president cure the recession is about as effective as expecting him to cure Hep C. 

Blow is certainly right that Obama and Democrats will pay a price in 2010 and 2012 if the employment picture doesn't dramatically improve.  Life is unfair that way.  But op-ed columnists should not pile on with fruitless demands for radically lower unemployment.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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