Today’s electoral repudiation of President Obama begs the question of how much to ascribe to sky-high unemployment and how much to blame Obama and his fellow Democrats for ideological over-reach and political tone deafness in their pursuit of health reform, financial reform, climate legislation, and other priorities. Republicans won control of the House, according to network projections, and has slashed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.
While mulling that question, however, let us ponder another one that will put today’s results in a broader context: has a recent incoming President ever faced a tougher combination of political and economic challenges?
Politically, Obama walked into a deceptively tough situation.
Not only has the country grown increasingly polarized in recent decades, it grew even more bitterly split in the immediate run-up to Obama’s presidency over matters both foreign (Iraq, torture, and Guantanamo Bay) and domestic (taxes, spending, and the causes of soaring deficits and debt).
Obama hasn’t brought us closer together, but he’s only partly to blame. Congressional Democrats are badly split between liberals and moderates, and the liberals who have most of the power (and their allies at the grassroots and in the blogs) have little interest in bipartisan cooperation. Nor have Republicans (and their allies at FOX TV and elsewhere) offered much good faith, lying about Democratic legislation (“death panels,” anyone?) and slinging absurd charges about Obama’s ideological dreams (“socialism,” anyone?).
Economically, Obama suffered from extraordinarily bad timing.
Yes, the two-sided crisis of deep recession and financial instability began under President Bush, but it came to a head in late 2008, just as Bush was preparing to cede office. Thus, Obama has presided over the vast majority of America’s suffering so that, in the public’s mind, this is clearly his economy.
Consider: when President Franklin Roosevelt assumed office in early 1933, the country had already experienced nearly four years of deep economic pain. No one doubted that the problems began under Herbert Hoover and no one doubted that Hoover’s effort to fix them had failed – giving Roosevelt extraordinary running room as he sought to restore confidence, spur growth, and put people back to work.
By contrast, Obama and the Democrats are facing a voter backlash against, among other things, the financial bailout, or “TARP,” legislation – even though it was enacted in late 2008 under Bush. As for the $800 billion stimulus legislation that Obama signed into law less than a month after taking office, it reflected a broad and longstanding consensus among economists about how the federal government should respond to a deep recession – one that dates back some 75 years.
Yes, the stimulus did not prevent unemployment from rising above what White House officials had predicted, but that’s more an issue of public relations than economic decision-making. The Congressional Budget Office and such prominent economists of both parties as former Clinton economic advisor Alan Blinder and former McCain presidential campaign advisor Mark Zandi have found that, if not for the stimulus, unemployment would have been higher and the road to recovery far more difficult.
Yes, Obama misplayed health care. Trying to avoid the Clinton mistake of proposing a far too complicated and detailed plan, he went too far in the other direction, letting congressional Democrats draft a plan with minimal guidance from him. Not only was he left to defend what his party mates were developing – warts and all – but the year-long process of enacting it left Obama open to charges that he was spending far too much time on health care and not nearly enough on the economy.
But, in tying health reform to long-term deficit reduction, Obama clearly had it right on the fiscal front. No serious budget analyst doubts that the key to reducing surging deficits is to slow the growth in health care costs and, in this way, slow the growth of Medicare and Medicaid. For all its problems, a fair reading of health reform suggests that, at the very least, it takes important initial steps in that direction.
Yes, Obama’s promise not to raise taxes on anyone making up to $250,000 a year is fiscally unsustainable. But, has any recent president faced a comparable situation in which broad, across-the-board tax cuts that were engineered under his predecessor are due to expire on his watch – at the end of this year, in fact?
Even if Obama wanted to abandon his pledge on fiscal grounds, he has economic and political challenges with which to contend. Economically, he runs the risk of sending the economy back into recession. Politically, he faces the reality that all Republicans, and a fair number of Democrats, want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and will oppose efforts to let any of them expire.
So, yes, the President has made his mistakes. But he has faced a vexing combination of political and economic challenges that even the most seasoned of politicians would have found tough to navigate.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.
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