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Can Obama make success popular?


President Obama's remarks at various Michigan automobile plants today get to the heart of the task facing the administration as we enter the 2010 election. The White House doesn't lack for accomplishments. What it lacks is popular accomplishments.

The auto bailout is a perfect example. By and large, it worked. The automobile sector stabilized. GM, Chrysler and Ford are all posting profits. Millions of workers who would've gone down with the car companies still have their jobs. America retains an automotive industry that's both competitive in developing markets like China and starting to scrap with the Japanese and German automakers in the high-tech, green-car market.


But the policy wasn't popular. Few liked it. Some thought it socialism. Some thought it cronyism. Which presents, of course, a difficulty for the White House: Saving millions of jobs and the American auto industry at an ultimately very small cost to the taxpayer is the sort of major policy accomplishment you should be able to run for reelection on. But what if people don't really understand that you did it, or that it worked, or that it didn't cost them much?

Obama doesn't have to invent accomplishments for Democrats to tout in the 2010 election. Rather, he has to convince the public to also consider those policies accomplishments. You can read his Chrysler speech, which gives this a shot, here.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Sauger/Bloomberg.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 30, 2010; 3:52 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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While I agree in general, the chart looks less attractive and rhetorically useful on closer examination: production is bouncing back, but not employment.

Posted by: vancemaverick | July 30, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

"Very small cost." $86 Billion?

Posted by: ath17 | July 30, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

almost any industry could post higher profits if the government gave them that much money. seriously, this is a success? this was the best possible use of that money?

Posted by: jfcarro | July 30, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

As honest John (mccain the former) said once, those jobs aren't coming back, the auto companies had too many people even during the good times, they could just hide them better. The fact that employment flat lined is actually a good sign. Again this is an argument of it could have been much worse

Posted by: ChicagoIndependant | July 30, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

"'Very small cost.' $86 Billion?"

It was an investment because the federal gov't got ownership rights. When GM does its IPO, then the bean counters will be able to see how much the bailout will cost taxpayers or benefit taxpayers. Latest news has the federal gov't making money on its GM investment like it did on TARP and the Citigroup bailout.

What Obama is missing is a charismatic auto company CEO to work some PR magic like Lee Iaccocca did with Chrysler back in the '80s after that company got goverment backed 'bailout' loans.

Posted by: tuber | July 30, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Is that chart meant to be serious? Cash for Clunkers and then suddenly industrial production zoomed upwards? Ever heard the phrase: "No where to go but up?"

While I do think he should tout that program as a relative success, pushing it too far might come off a little bit like taking credit for the weather getting better. Although he would not be the first politician to credit himself for natural upswings in the business cycle.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | July 30, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Bush was the one who saved the auto-industry, not Obama (though Obama later continued the efforts).

Bush was the one who enacted TARP too, which many economists credit for reversing the jobs loss trend starting in January 2009, before Obama could have done anything to effect it. And if Obama's later stimulus also served to improve the economy, he at best deserves partial credit along with Bush.

Obama's so-called successes would have been achieved even with Bush or McCain in office. So in the eyes of many progressives these successes don't count.

Where Obama has failed is in nearly every single progressive cause for which he was elected. The Gulf Oil Spill should not have happened under a true progressive administration cognizant of big-energy duplicity, which he stated he was.

The health care bill, of course, may be seen as a success too, but progressives see it as little different than the status quo; and besides, it is delayed and is being threatened with repeal.

So which progressive-only successes has Obama achieved? Especially as compared to the many progressive opportunities he has walked away from or not fought for?

I voted for Obama, but I hope he is primaried successfully. He is politically inept though a good, well-intentioned person.

Posted by: lauren2010 | July 30, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, remind us how much GM's pension is underfunded? Who is going to be on the hook for that?

Posted by: cdosquared5 | July 30, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, remind us how much GM's pension is underfunded? Who is going to be on the hook for that?

Posted by: cdosquared5 | July 30, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Obama is the snake oil salesman of the century! The car business was so bad, it had only one way to go. If we had let them fail, we would be better off than spending billions in "stimulus". We have enabled bad behavior. Wake up, America


Posted by: my4653 | July 30, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

You can tell that it must be campaign season, because the campaign operatives are back, peppering Ezra's comment sections with fact-twisting smears. They want us to feel fear, uncertainty, and resentment. The issues don't really matter. What matters is if the issues can cause fear, uncertainty, and resentment: Resentment that the auto industry got a bail-out, that people who can't afford medical care will get attention, that the undeserving poor are wasting food stamps from you the taxpayer. Fear that we can't control government spending or that Social Security is going bankrupt. Uncertainty that the financial regulation or the healthcare bill has so many pages that you can't understand it, that it won't work, that it must be why the businesses aren't creating jobs.

It's all based on nonsense, and much of it is based on lies. Real new facts are that the Democrats reduced long-term spending, that Obamacare introduces a far more competitive market, that insurance mandates make EVERYONE pay LESS for ALL, and that adding millions more unemployed in a bad recession would have been terribly stupid.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | July 30, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

As thoroughly idiotic as my4653's screed is, there is some truth to the enabling bad behavior part. Unfortunately, the enabling bad behavior started long before Obama, but Obama gets the credit for it. So, even though retaining the auto industry is a far better outcome than letting it collapse and snowball the recession into a depression, having saved it still feels...kind of...icky.

A lot of American cars are crap. And we're saving them. Yay us?

Just like if all those new FBI powers Obama's working for do indeed prevent another terrorist attack. It still won't feel good. Even though it could have been really bad.

Partially this is because we won't ever live in those alternate realities where the recession did snowball into a depression or where the fictional terrorist attack did kill thousands of people. So, we take our current reality for granted and lament those infringements on our principles.

Posted by: slag | July 30, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse


We voted them out in 2008

Why let them back in only after a two year wait?

Posted by: lauren2010 | July 30, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

How come Americans don't realize that the government throwing billions and billions at a failing sector of the economy can stabilize it for now.....its a long as Obama is President he won't stop throwing money on top of money to stabilize a poor economy and keep it mediocre.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 30, 2010 10:58 PM | Report abuse

Why would anyone think that the American auto industry won't totally tank once the billions of Obama subsidies expire?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 30, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

Sure... they "fixed" the auto industry and saved some jobs! Nevermind the $10+ a gallon of gas is going to cost us after all this money printing.

But I'm sure they'll find another excuse. They'll blame oil companies, or speculators, or whoever the latest scapegoat is.

And all the people who've been warning about unsustainable monetary and fiscal policies for decades? Well, since more people will become aware, and get angry, they'll have an even bigger voice. But, of course, they'll be accused of not existing before the latest Presidency. Oh, wait, that part has already happened.

Posted by: MrTracker | July 31, 2010 12:11 AM | Report abuse

How is it that Ford managed to pull through without screwing its stockholders and debt-holders and giving taxpayers' billions to the unions?

And why did the non-union car companies not require bailouts?

Posted by: spamsux1 | July 31, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Analysts say that 1.1 million jobs were saved by the bailout and restructuring. The expenses to the unemployment insurance system would be about $18B per year for up to 2 years. That amount of money was saved by the bailout, in addition to the dignity of the workers who would have lost their jobs. So the net expense by the public was about 1/2 of the $60B spent on the bailout.
I am surprised that I haven't seen this point mentioned by anyone.

Posted by: eadler2 | July 31, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - If only we were more intelligent, like you. You argue that the President has obviously succeeded but that we, the voters, just don't get it yet. His job is to show us, in simple terms and graphs (that graph was supposed to illustrate a bounce-back to pre-Obama conditions?) that he has saved this great country single-handedly. If only we were that smart. Like you.

Posted by: BillyBob7 | July 31, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

People are not going to suddenly love the bailouts. They were unpopular when they were implemented, and they're going to remain that way. Democrats are going to dislike them because they dislike the idea of helping big business and Republicans are going to dislike them solely because Obama was in charge.

This is what happens when Obama plays nice with the corporatists. There is no constituency to back him up.

Posted by: rick_desper | August 1, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

The cost of the bailout isn't the 86 billion as bad as that is. The cost is the fact subsidy to incompetence. We're rewarding incompetence and by extension punishing companies that act smartly. When GM or whomever gets in trouble again how can they expect to not be bailed out again?

For all that why do people not like Obama on this? Not for what i'm suggesting. They didn't like it at the start and any seeming "success" just makes them dislike it and him more not less. See Bush a d the surge in Iraq.

Posted by: conor1971 | August 1, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: JoeJeffersonn | August 1, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

"How is it that Ford managed to pull through without screwing its stockholders and debt-holders and giving taxpayers' billions to the unions?"

Because Ford was the first US automaker to rationalize its global operations and move towards a unified product line-- the One Ford strategy, which phased out some US-only models and brought in a bunch of Euro Ford platforms.

GM bet the farm on SUVs tailored to the US market, then realized it had to follow Ford's example, but the timing of the downturn hit them during the transition a new unified small/mid-sized platform, when they were especially vulnerable. Had it come a couple of years earlier, Ford might have been screwed; had it come a couple of years later, GM might have survived intact.

For the record: it wasn't the unions who decided which cars to make, nor were the foreign makers -- who you sneakily pretend are just "non-union" -- left to fend for themselves back home.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 2, 2010 12:55 AM | Report abuse

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