Obama Will Still Win, but He Could Have Won Big
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The Fiscal Times
October 26, 2012

Some weeks ago, I said that Barack Obama would likely win the election. Although the race has narrowed, I still think he is the favorite on Election Day. However, the odds are not overwhelming, and Mitt Romney is within striking distance and could pull an upset. If Romney wins, it won’t be because of the skill of Romney’s campaign or missteps by Obama’s; it will be because Obama simply never offered a compelling reason for his reelection.

To prepare for this column, I went back and read my Obama file from 2008. Two things struck me. First was the widepread view among Democrats that he had the potential to be a transformational president by overcoming the obstacles of being our nation’s first black president, beating a highly competent competitor (Hillary Clinton) for the nomination, and exploiting his unquestioned skill as an orator. 

The second thing that struck me was just how wary those on the Democratic left were about Obama from the beginning. As early as July 2008, they were raising flags about his liberalism, seeing and hearing too much moderation from him and his advisers. Obama clearly positioned himself much more toward the middle of the political spectrum than to the left. Although many thought this was just a matter of political tactics, it eventually turned out that Obama is indeed far more of a moderate than everyone originally thought. .

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Republicans met in early 2009 and agreed to show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies. They wielded the Senate filibuster in an unprecedented fashion to prevent Obama from having any political victories if possible. While I don’t believe Republicans intentionally sabotaged the economy just for partisan reasons, their actions were identical to what would have been the case had that been their motivation.

Of course, the Republican Party’s well-financed network of think tanks, trade associations and media outlets (Fox News, talk radio) all joined in ganging up on Obama. The persistance of crazy conspiracy theories, such as the common right-wing belief that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, that were never, ever repudiated by Republican leaders have been repeated endlessly. Indeed, the percentage of Republicans who believe Obama is not a natural-born American citizen actually increased after his complete birth certificate was released by the state of Hawaii.

While reprehensible in many ways, one cannot fault the opposition party for opposing a president of the opposite party. That’s their job, even if it was carried to ridiculous extremes. Where I fault Obama is in not fighting back, making Republicans pay a price for their obstructionism, and allowing his enemies to define him.

For four years, I have waited in vain for Obama to get mad, to tell off the right-wing zealots peddling lies, and most of all to offer some sort of narative tying his policies together in some sort of basic philosophy.

For example, Obama has steadfastly avoided blaming the previous administration for the policies that led to the economic crisis that peaked in the weeks following the election. The recession began in December 2007, and whatever caused it had to have happened long before Obama was elected. No one is saying he needed to beat Bush over the head for his many mistakes, but Obama needed to be much clearer about inheriting the economic mess we are still in and was not the cause of it.

Additionally, Obama never offered a real explanation for the economic crisis that showed why his policies were appropriate to the circumstances. Like many economists, I believe we have been suffering from a collapse of aggregate demand all along and needed much more aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus. While Obama supported a fiscal stimulus plan in February 2009, it was much too small and poorly designed to do more than slow the economy’s downward momentum. He has never shown much interst in monetary policy, leaving vacancies on the Federal Reserve Board for years.

Because the rationale for the stimulus was never explained, it was easy for Republicans to insinuate that it was nothing but a give-away to lazy good-for-nothings who refuse to look for a job – Romney’s 47 percent who are society’s takers – instead of an essential macroeconomic tool to fill the gap in aggregate spending. Consequently, there was no opportunity to go back for more stimulus when the first round was seen to be inadequate.

I am not the only observer who thinks that part of Obama’s failure was that he quickly turned his attention to health care reform right after the stimulus bill. I think this was a dreadful miscalculation. He should instead have focused on the housing industry, which remains an albatross around the economy’s neck.

Obama should have put all the power of his office into helping homeowners with underwater mortages get refinancing to free up cash flow, getting banks to allow those with delinquant mortgages to rent while working out their debts, and facilitating writing down debts that cannot be paid.

While I think right-wing opposition to the Affordable Care Act is extremely overwrought, health care reform wasn’t something that had to be done in 2009; it could have waited until the economy had turned around. It was too easy a target for Republicans, especially since Obama never explained that it was based solidly on Republican principles – before 2009, the individual mandate was the foundation of their health reform.

Lastly, Obama has never given voters the leadership they crave, a coherent argument for his reelection, or a vision of what he will do in a second term. All he has offered is more of the same and reasons why the other guy is worse. Even if it’s true that a Romney administration would be worse, that is a weak reason for relecting Obama. Sometimes people just want a change in direction even if they aren’t sure whether the driver knows where he is going.

Continuing down the same path in hopes of an improvement taxes peoples’ patience at some point. For many former Obama supporters, they have reached that point. If he loses, that’s why.

Bruce Bartlett’s columns focus on the intersection of politics and economics. The author of seven books, he worked in government for many years and was senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House.