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I could train high school students to be better-than-average political pundits

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Kevin Drum is baffled by the conventional wisdom that Obama should have "pivoted back to jobs and the economy sooner."

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

By Ezra Klein  |  January 15, 2010; 2:59 PM ET
Categories:  Economy  
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Comments

It cracks me up to no end when Ezra Klein mocks his entire chosen profession. I totally agree, btw.

There are at least 20 House seats that are simply not natural to a Democrat to win, and the Democrats picked them up in 2006 and 2008 because of lack of Republican interest in these two elections. This is a trend which will regress to the mean in 2010, and they'll win all of those back.

And yet....we'll live through breathless commentary of some wave of Democrat disappointment with Obama, and how the Republican party is back from the dead, and how Obama is destined to lose in 2012....anyway, it will be mildly amusing to watch it all unfold.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 15, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I'd file this blog entry in the category of "Apologism."

It's inevitable that Obama will lose seats in Congress, therefore, none of his actions need be seen as responsible for that loss.

Bull pucky.

Posted by: jc263field | January 15, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

This is irresponsible on your part Ezra as well as Kevin Drum.

To start with if you wanted from Matt's Left position, WH could have argued for Gagnon plan. That did not require Congress to spend, but Fed to open the spigot further. I do not agree with that, but that is a policy difference. But Krugman favors that, so you have heavy weights supporting it. If Ron Paul is the political challenge there, how much did this President take that challenge head on? Part of it was to 'cut Bernanke' to the size once he continued to parrot the 'regulation failure line only but no fault of Fed' as well as exhorting him to lend more if Admin believed the Gagnon plan.

On the other hand if WH did not believe Gagnon plan, they should have worked with Congress to spend more. Who said that would be easy? But did Obama try that after the stimulus act?

Since May of 09, Meredith Whitney has been saying that Small Businesses are not getting credit. What did Obama do for that? He just made one empty speech in October and that is it. Would it have necessarily required going to Congress to loosen up there? And even so why do you think Dems and GOP would have opposed that, Small Business being natural GOP constituency?

Matt kept on talking about Germany like 'employment sharing' plan. Did Obama pick up that early in the game?

Truth is despite people telling Admin to be modest in assuming unemployment rate while passing the Stimulus; Admin sold that stimulus as if it was the solution and in the process lost the credibility to go to Congress. You find it hard to accept this Truth.

Finally, whose job is it to come up with 'creative plans' to improve employment? Me, a mere blog commentator? When smart bloggers like you were busy promoting HCR and all the sophisticated nuances of HCR, it is some chutzpah to say that there is nothing what Admin could have done.

Ezra, you own to your blog even to come up with a single proposal to increase employment. How much time did you spend on that before you berate Admin critics that they are barking the wrong tree?

You are childish here, not the folks who have been rightly criticizing that this WH missed its responsibility to do more for jobs.

One of the worst posts man...

Posted by: umesh409 | January 15, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

umesh is right. we didn't elect Obama because he's beautiful and eloquent (ok, jkaren did!). we elected him for leadership. you and Drum seem to be making the case it's more important to use the current Democratic majority to pass health care/insurance reform since political history shows majority losses in a poor economic climate. you discount the fact that many Americans are suffering due to this economy and the loss of jobs--must be nice picking up your WaPo paycheck every couple of weeks. you claim he can change the optics of the situation after health care legislation passes. the point is that a majority of Americans don't appreciate voting for change and waiting for leadership from the president on the economy. Americans want to hear about jobs, jobs, and jobs, now.

Posted by: goadri | January 15, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Is it just me or is the typical Republican job argument something like this:

1. The Gov't cannot create jobs, only private business can. Therefore government programs are a waste.

2. Private businesses aren't creating jobs because the gov't doesn't have enough programs to encourage them to do so.

The fact that one and two directly contradict each other seems never to be mentioned.

A parallel on the individual level is:

1. Fight stimulus, denounce it, and vote against it.
2. Take credit when stimulus funds create jobs.

Posted by: nylund | January 15, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

As one who voted with jkaren, I'll say that I could WISH Obama had leaned on jobs more, passed more stimulus, forced the banks to lend us a little bridging money during this slowdown, and more.

I'm assuming that his judgment said he couldn't do these things, because I'm quite certain that, like any normal person here, he would want to.

But with all the noise about why he does (or doesn't do) things, I never read analysis from people who ask him why he's acted the way he has. Could someone ask him please?

I'd love to know what he thinks about his opportunity limits and opportunity costs - I'm sure it would be a great interview.

From his few public pronouncements, he always seems quite aware of every detail of all the debates that swirl around us and through these threads. Wish somebody would ask him his opinion.

Posted by: rosshunter | January 15, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

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