I could train high school students to be better-than-average political pundits
Is it a purely political argument that, regardless of the merits, Obama should have been viewed as spending 24/7 hunkered down in the West Wing helping create jobs for American workers? Or is it a substantive argument that governments have limited bandwidth and Obama should have spent more of his on reducing the unemployment rate?
The former is puerile and the latter is mysterious. What exactly should he have done? He passed a big stimulus bill, and it's plain that there's no political will in Congress to pass another one of any size. He extended unemployment benefits. He tried to take action on mortgage foreclosures, and perhaps he could have done more along those lines. But the financial lobby fought him, Congress wouldn't support cramdown legislation, and banks have resisted taking part in his program. The Consumer Finance Protection Agency would be a nice pro-worker feather in his cap, but it wouldn't help anyone find a job and probably wouldn't have gotten through Congress any quicker even if they weren't busy with healthcare.
So exactly what would his "pivot" back to jobs have looked like? Nobody ever really says. But aside from giving rousing speeches, the big levers available to fix the economy are monetary, which is in the hands of the Fed; fiscal, which he's done; and meliorative, which he's largely done too. The rest is mostly window dressing.
I'd just add that the political advice industry would like you to believe that first-term presidents lose midterm elections because of bad priorities or misguided strategies. After all, if pundits were just going to go on TV every night saying that "first-term presidents virtually always lose seats in the next election," no one would watch. But ... first-term presidents virtually always lose seats in the next election. Since the Civil War, only two presidents have gained seats in their first midterm election: FDR, who was riding the initial recovery from the Great Depression, and George W. Bush, who was boosted by 9/11.
Moreover, presidents almost always lose seats amid rising unemployment numbers. If I gave some high school civics students those two pieces of information and then handed out a quiz question saying, "President X is in his first term and is facing riding unemployment. What's likely to happen in the next election?" they would probably all get it right, and with less hand-waving about how he should "pivot back to jobs and the economy in October of 2009 rather than February of 2010."
Photo credit: By Gabriel Liegey/The Washington Post
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