President Obama’s Record

January 17th, 2012 at 9:50 am

I’ve always said that if someone calculated a ratio of credit-for-things-accomplished/things-accomplished President Obama would score extremely low.  Andrew Sullivan collects the facts.

One question I was left with after reading this was why does the President score so low on that ratio?  Why hasn’t he gotten more credit for what I believe history will ultimately judge as a record of remarkable accomplishments?

A few thoughts:

–The main reason is that people don’t do “counterfactuals”—things are getting better but still pretty bad for a lot of folks and pointing out that “it coulda been worse,” while true, is not…um…good politics.  It didn’t help that the admin—and I played a role in this one—underestimated how high unemployment would go.

–On the other hand, where we were and where we are is (good politics, that is)…and good economics too (if we don’t accurately evaluate the impact of policies like the Recovery Act, we won’t be guided by lessons learned next time).

–A useful concept in this regard is what economists call the “swing”—(see table; and you thought we economists weren’t swingers!).  It’s the difference between changes in a variable over two different periods.  So if GDP was falling 9% last year and growing 4% this year, the swing—the change from how you were falling to how fast you’re now growing is 4%-(-9%), or 13%.  The swings in GDP and jobs over the President’s first year in office are historically large.

–People don’t like bailouts.  Saving the banks and autos was necessary but unpopular.  I get why helping the banks was unpopular; I don’t really get why the autos weren’t.  People particularly dislike bailouts when too little is asked of the recipients (again, this should have favored the autos, where creditors took haircuts, unions made concessions, execs were replaced…I think that story was just not well explained).

Housing: missing from Sullivan’s review, these programs underperformed, and millions were hit by the bursting of the bubble.

Stuff Kicks in Later : Health care reform, financial regulation, consumer protection—most people haven’t yet benefitted from these changes.

–A level of opposition heretofore unseen: when a national leader (senate minority leader Mitch McConnell) says out loud that his party’s #1 goal is not jobs, deficit reduction, improving education, the business climate, etc…but is instead defeating the President, you’re into some unchartered territory.  These are the same folks that flirted with default on US debt.  When one side is willing to self-inflict wounds of that magnitude on the body politic, it’s awfully hard for anyone to look good.

Budget deficits: Polls show most people actually hold a reasonable view of federal budget deficits in that they don’t see them as our biggest problem right now (that would be “jobs”).  But the echo chamber resounds with noise about all of our borrowing–Europe’s debt problems amplify the noise–and the admin has had trouble talking about the short-term imperative of more stimulus to attack unemployment at the same time as persuing the longer term imperative of getting on a sustainable budget path.

I’m sure there’s more, but those are some of the big ticket entries.  Still, I could be wrong, but unless the economy heads south again, the truth of Sullivan’s survey will dominate in coming months.  I may be way too optimistic about this, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

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15 comments in reply to "President Obama’s Record"

  1. JP says:

    Two more factors to add to the list:

    1) “The Big Idea.” Americans are looking to understand why this crisis happened; and how it will be addressed. But Obama’s answers have been scattered — there’s no coherence, and very little causality (or blame!). Maybe he’d say he’s a “pragmatist”; but the problem with being a pragmatist is that people don’t know what you stand for. (You stand for “stuff that works” — which doesn’t do much for you when the economy, and government, aren’t working!)

    Since the 1970s, the Republicans have dominated the “big idea” sweepstakes: government is screwing things up, and therefore taxes and spending are too high. Solution: cut taxes and spending. Dems have been ineffectual in response; the closest they came was Clinton’s “work hard and play by the rules”. Obama needs a better explanation for where we are and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

    2) “On your side.” Related: FDR did not have a coherent program, but few working people doubted that whatever he did, it was aimed at helping workers and not the rich. They gave him much latitude because of it.

    But in part because of the lack of a big idea, liberals, workers, etc, don’t believe that Obama reflexively has their back. They don’t believe he’d do “whatever it takes” to make their lives better. (And they’re right.)

    The combination of 1 and 2 means he’s dangerously open to attacks from a Republican opponent: it becomes a debate about whose proposals will work better (the Republican solutions haven’t been “failing” for the past 3 years), or, even more dangerously, whose solutions will do less damage (Republicans win again — because everyone likes lower taxes), rather than an argument about who is really working for the middle class/forgotten man/man in the street/99%….

    3) This is *not* a call for Lakoff/Luntz style framing. It’s actually a call for what advertisers call the “reason why” — the positive argument for why you should get off your duff and buy my product. Obama (and Jared) are still making a negative argument: things would be worse with the other guy….and that “hopey changey thing” won’t cut it this time.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Excellent additions, though not quite right re my position. It’s more:
      –things are getting better–remember where we were!–so don’t change horses–espescially if the other horse will just turn around and run back to where we were.

      Needs work, but you get the picture.

      • JP says:

        “Remember where we were” is a bit of a chartist argument: you almost need Obama to come out at every press conference with a gigantic chart of the unemployment curve to make it work. That’s because the 1984 Reagan version of the argument — “Were you better off four years ago?” — does not work for Obama. I think no matter how many arguments you make about Obama’s record, you can’t get away from your point #1: people don’t do counterfactuals. And why would “doing” the counterfactual even be good for Obama anyway? Isn’t Republican talk radio all counterfactual all the time, *against* Obama?

        So I guess these two thoughts were not additional factors, but reasons why making a list of Obama’s policy wins is beside the point. All of those explanations about “credit” based on policy are right, but policy doesn’t matter now: the economy is still in the toilet, and Obama hasn’t unclogged things.

        Put differently: People need to understand not what Obama has DONE but what he WILL DO that is different from the Republicans, and WHY that will work. Obama’s record — no matter how you spin it — is anchored to the unemployment/growth/(and alas, “deficit/debt”) numbers, and those are not good.

  2. ChacoKevy says:

    I get what Sullivan was trying to do with this piece, but I think there is a lot of cherry-picking in his evidence submitted. For instance, when he is championing Obama’s foreign policy, he cites: 1) Osama bin Laden 2) Iraq war ended on schedule and 3)lead from behind on Libya. Yet the word “Afghanistan” does not even appear.

    I maintain there is ample reason to be disappointed in Obama and not be “unhinged”.

    Professionally Left

  3. Mitch Lake says:

    Not one mention of the president’s civil liberties failures (Gitmo, indefinite detention, etc.) and bellicose foreign policy (Afghanistan, drones strikes in countries we’re not even at worth with (Yemen, Somalia), etc.). Furthermore the Obama admin. hasn’t prosecuted one Wall St. banker for the 2008 crisis, the admin. has also deterred people like Eric Schneiderman from investigating Wall St. Perhaps that’s a reason for dissatisfaction with this inept administration.

    • Petronius Arbiter says:

      Well, Conor Friedersdorf did what I thought was a good job of criticizing Sullivan’s article in a piece at The Atlantic I’ve been irritated for a long time, like Greenwald, that many many “liberals/progressives” who screamed about Bush’s criminality have been utterly silent about these obvious abuses by Obama. I hear the argument that it was Congress that prevented him from closing Guantanamo, for example, but I didn’t see any pushback — it seemed Rahm and Axelrod actually welcomed the Congressional noise because it helped them win their fight with Craig.

  4. Tyler says:

    Because he averted a depression, he gets at least a B.

    Because he increased the amount of troops in Afghanistan, as well as the amount of worldwide drone attacks, and because he turned to deficit reduction as early as 2010, he gets no higher than a B.

  5. Jean says:

    I would add that the media is a contributor to the problem of perception vs. reality. Cable news is biased and network news is trying to offset that problem by being “fair” instead of factual.

    I also believe that what the left [myself included] wanted in a president was one that would put the conservatives in what we believe to be their place — on the sidelines — so that we could get on with our progressive agenda. Obama’s personality certainly didn’t allow for that, nor, I have come to realize, did his beliefs.

    I hope that the Sullivan article gets traction. President Obama’s re-election needs more of this kind of championing.

  6. Chris G says:

    A few comments re major shortcomings in President Obama’s actions to date:

    1. JP’s observations re “The Big Idea” and “On Your Side” are good ones. Drew Westen’s op-ed in the NY Times last August, “What Happened to Obama’s Passion?” spoke to much the same issues –

    2. Bailouts: I believe people would be much more accepting of the bank and auto industry bailouts if there’d been comparable middle class bailout plans executed. As it was, it sure looks like it was the ‘haves’ who got the second chances.

    3. Civil Liberties: Among other things, some of the things in the National Defense Authorization Act sound really bad. Glenn Greenwald at Salon has been on top of civil liberties issues as has Scott Horton at Harper’s. And Jonathan Turley had an instructive op-ed in the WaPo the other day

    4. Wall Street prosecutions: Very disappointing that no one is being held accountable. Like failing to prosecute war crimes by members of the prior administration, ignoring the problem is not going to make it go away. The individuals responsible are not contrite and if the opportunity presents itself they will almost certainly offend again. His failure to call out unacceptable behavior and hold people accountable will serve us poorly in the long run.

    Yes, the President has some significant achievements to his credit but you can’t ignore the negatives. On balance, I say the negatives outweigh the positives. Sure, it’s reasonable to believe that he’s a 100x better than McCain would have been or Romney might be but the fact that he could be much much worse doesn’t make him good.

  7. Chuck Sheketoff says:

    Sometimes you just have to be blunt and to the point.

    See (suitable for children)

    or (adult verson)

    • Chris G says:

      I have a few issues with that list:
      1) The best stuff on it tops out at ‘pretty good’.
      2) The ‘pretty good’ stuff doesn’t address the acute crisis we’re facing. The middle class is getting stomped on. This is the most serious economic crisis in – what? – almost four generations and the best the President can claim is, “Look! We’re treading water!”? I’m unimpressed.
      3) A good number of the items on the list don’t stand up to cross examination. For example, touting passage of the Stimulus as an accomplishment. The funding was 1/3 to 1/2 that needed to actually kickstart the economy. Look at the employment-to-population ratio over recent years. It’s been flat since things cratered in 2008. If the Stimulus had actually been sufficient to boost the employment-to-population ratio and maybe reduce the deficit, that’d be something to be proud of. Just stabilizing a bad situation… meh, I think the Peter Principle applies.

      I compare the list of Obama’s admittedly decent accomplishments against his absolutely awful record on civil liberties and I can’t call him a good president. On the whole, he’s not awful but he’s definitely not good either.

  8. Dave B says:

    I think Obama’s BIG problem is that he came into office promising many things. Obama has failed on many of his pie in the sky promises. Having set the bar so high President Obama set a very high bar and has failed to clear it by President Obama’s own standards!
    On Health care reform Obama promised that the government would be open and the debates would be on C-span and all bills would be posted before being singed. Instead America got a back room deal with no transparency and the bill passed on a Senate technicality with the Democratic Leader of the House saying “you will have to read the bill to know what’s in it.
    On the economy President Obama and the Democrats set some goals and assured the American people that they had keys to cure the economic woes and they would use these costly keys to get America working at “shovel ready” jobs. Americans were told that if the $800 billion dollar “stimulus package were passed unemployment would not reach 8%”. We have now had the longest highest unemployment since World War Two. Cash for clunkers (that took perfectly good automobiles and destroyed them at massive cost to the federal government) and was an epic failure! We have multiple companies such as Solyndra that President Obama invested tax payer money in that have failed costing Americans billions up on billions of dollars. It hasn’t helped that Many of President Obama’s cronies and large donors benefited from these “tax payer investments”. President Obama promised that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. We are now generating RECORD deficits.
    The war on terror has also been a tremendous problem. Yes, the troops were pulled out of Iraq and Ben Laden killed. President Obama has failed to close Gitmo in one year as promised. President Obama’s efforts to close Gitmo were like watching a three stooges cartoon. The President ran around the World begging people to take in terrorist even paying multiple millions to the tiny Country of Palau to take in just 6. We were promised open court room trials for the terrorist at Gitmo in New York City. After over three years we have yet to hold a trial for one terrorist in Gitmo. The master Mind of 9-11 still sits in jail awaiting a trial!
    I could go on and on with President Obama’s many failures to meet his own standards and the bars he set but why bother. Don’t hand me the line that President’s opponents could not do better because President Obama set the standards and goals himself and said if he failed to achieve them he would be a one term president!

    • Chigliakus says:

      “We have multiple companies such as Solyndra that President Obama invested tax payer money in that have failed costing Americans billions up on [sic] billions of dollars.”

      Solyndra cost taxpayers around $500 million. While Solyndra may have been a poor investment, I think government-backed loans have a place in encouraging development of beneficial technology. We know the private sector can’t look beyond the next quarter, so where else is the investment going to come from?

      As for the rest, I voted for Obama as the lesser of two evils. I can’t think of a politician I’ve ever voted for that wasn’t more of a vote against the other guy.

      • Gerald E Berg says:

        Funny thing about voting for the lesser of two evils. It always seems to elect an Evil lesser.

  9. Gerald E Berg says:

    “People don’t like bailouts. Saving the banks and autos was necessary but unpopular. I get why helping the banks was unpopular; I don’t really get why the autos weren’t. ”

    Why was saving the banks–in their current form under their incumbent management necessary? Was that an economic or a partisan political calculation?

    Glasss-Steagall & Chapter 11 come to mind as alternatives and they worked in FDR’s day. Obama’s political dependence on Goldman Sachs, Buffett, Soros, et al suggests that he is in no danger of being an FDR.

    And of course ‘bailing-out the auto companies’ really meant bailing out certain Hedge Funds since one or another Hedge Fund basically now own every auto company.

    Saving the technological capability of the auto industry does not require bailing-out the financial sharks who tried to kill it. But it does require eliminating the Sharks political influence.

    Please Dr. Bernstein correct my mistakes.