How the Economy Beats Obama at His Own Game


President Obama used to blame the economy on "the last eight years." Now that he's been president for a year, he can't do that, because "the last eight years, if you start counting back from a little over a year ago" isn't a very pithy culprit for the recession. So he occasionally blames a smorgasbord of offenders from Wall Street fat cats to Main Street big spenders to all the electeds in between. But blame is like butter: spread too thin, it doesn't leave make of an impression.

This is a good paragraph from Ron Brownstein that says clearly what others have said obliquely: now that Obama no longer has "the last eight years" to kick around anymore, his economic narrative is kind of all over the place.

When Obama first arrived, he often arraigned his predecessor's record. The first chapter of Obama's initial budget document was "Inheriting a Legacy of Misplaced Priorities." Obama still delivers some similar jabs. But more often, he diffuses blame for the downturn across "a perfect storm of irresponsibility... that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street." Obama, at other points, has emphasized his continuity with Bush's approach, particularly on financial bailouts. (Liberal critics such as Reich believe that link extends beyond rhetoric to policy.) The result is that Obama has mostly shelved what political scientist Stephen Skowronek of Yale University calls "the authority to repudiate." That's the effort, employed by consequential presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, to build support by portraying their agenda as the remedy for their predecessors' failures.

Obama would like to draw a bright line between the Bush policies he's extended and the new policies that are all his. Unfortunately for the president, he's getting credit for neither. Many groups condemn him for his continuity with the Bush Team's emergency bailout measures (some forget that the lifelines for Wall Street, AIG, Fannie/Freddie and the Detroit auto makers all began under Bush, not Obama). In addition, many groups condemn him for his failure to slow unemployment with Keynesian counter-cyclical spending increases: 62% of Americans think the stimulus did nothing, or worse (even thought they're almost certainly wrong).

What kind of economic manager-in-chief is he? Like everything else, the real answer is fuzzy and gray. Obama is a fiscal responsibility scold living with a trillion dollar deficit. He's a long-game strategist in an administration that is calling for more short-term stimulus. He's a natural consensus-seeker working with a minority party so small and pugnacious it sees no electoral virtue in seeking consensus. He's an evangelist for transformative legislation, but whereas one can propose and pass transformative legislation on health care and carbon pricing and immigration reform, you cannot legislate unemployment down to 6%. And so on the economy, he's stuck fighting a monster, but without his best weapons.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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