Opinion

Sorry, Obama: Your economic policies weren't 'awesome'

Obama thinks he deserves more kudos for the economy. Here's why he doesn't.

"Our policies are so awesome," Obama reportedly told aides in 2011. "Why can't you guys do a better job selling them?"

In many ways, that quote sums up the mystery Mike Grunwald works through in a recent Politico article: By a host of economic metrics — job growth, energy imports, the deficit, uninsured rates, and more — the country has been on a crazy winning streak. And yet the American people think things are going terribly, and the president has struggled to hold on to their approval.

"I actually compare our economic performance to how, historically, countries that have wrenching financial crises perform," Obama told The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin in another deep dive, this time about his economic legacy specifically. "By that measure, we probably managed this better than any large economy on Earth in modern history."

Both pieces expend an enormous amount of energy on the "selling" of Obama's policies, and why a president hailed as a great communicator seemingly failed to communicate all the great things he and the Democrats accomplished. But perhaps the disconnect lies in assuming the problem was the selling. Because the awesomeness of Obama's policies is highly debatable.

Before the $840 billion stimulus bill was even passed, some of the White House's own economists were pointing out that closing the hole left by the Great Recession would require a package over twice as big. And even those economists badly underestimated the severity of the collapse, releasing a projection in 2009 that unemployment would peak at 9 percent without the stimulus as passed. It peaked at 10 percent with it.

Sorkin argues that overall Obama managed to push $1.4 trillion into the economy, but this was over the full scope of Obama's time in office. As Dean Baker pointed out, that's much different than $1.4 trillion in 2009 — timing matters.

As for ObamaCare, it's driven the uninsured rate down to a 50-year low, and there's at least circumstantial evidence it's slowing the growth of health care prices. But the reform's expansion of coverage relied at least in part on the private insurance market, and that meant driving up the industry's costs. So it needed to pump just as much money into the system through the subsidies. But it didn't. As a result, ObamaCare made the poorest 20 percent of Americans much better off, but it made everyone else slightly worse off. Obviously, on the heels of the worst economic crash in 80 years, that's not exactly a stellar result.

The genuine question is whether it was politically possible to do any better.

Sorkin and Grunwald's chronicles unearth some missteps: Obama backed George W. Bush's bank bailout during the 2008 campaign, despite the possibility of other approaches. (Imagine adding the $700 billion budgeted for the bailout to the stimulus instead!) Obama apparently also buys, to some extent, the story about how American workers lack the necessary skills and education to compete in the modern economy. But this story does not line up with the available evidence. Then there's the political decision to not pursue the bigger stimulus, and other matters.

To Obama's credit, however, his power to enact policy was always balanced on a knife's edge, even in 2009. Obama simply did not get the massive legislative majorities that, say, Franklin Roosevelt used to enact the New Deal. That, combined with the decades-long shift towards tighter partisanship in the parties, and the political extremism and panic that always comes form a major economic shock, and there were always going to be severe constraints on what Obama and the Democrats could enact. On both the stimulus and Obamacare, the White House's economists and policymakers were caught in a paradox where legislation big enough to actually address the country's full problems would probably be almost impossible to pass.

In his own better moments, Obama seems to understand the limits of his own power: "He genuinely seems to believe that wise policy will eventually turn out to be wise politics," Grunwald wrote. The rewards of political support come after wise policy has made a concrete difference in people's lives. It cannot be conjured out of thin air by a better communication. As Ezra Klein once noted, there's basically zero evidence that the presidential bully pulpit can change public opinion at any given moment — but there's plenty of evidence the state and trajectory of the economy has an enormous effect on elections. And indeed, Obama won a second term.

But Obama's administration began in the wreckage of the Great Recession, when there was nowhere to go but up. Compared to actual "good times" for the labor market like the late 90s boom, enormous weakness and suffering still remain.

So yes, wise policy is wise politics. But Obama's policies simply weren't that wise. That may not have been his fault, but that's the situation. Once we understand that, there's no mystery as to why Obama's awesomeness has been so hard to sell.

More From...

Picture of Jeff SprossJeff Spross
Read All
Shouldn't Congress be considered essential?
The Capitol building.
Opinion

Shouldn't Congress be considered essential?

Republicans literally want to work Americans to death
A factory.
Opinion

Republicans literally want to work Americans to death

The Payroll Protection Program's problems were extremely avoidable
Money on a cliff.
Feature

The Payroll Protection Program's problems were extremely avoidable

Can coronavirus bring economics back down to reality?
An expensive steak.
Opinion

Can coronavirus bring economics back down to reality?

Recommended

Garland files motion to unseal Trump search warrant
Merrick Garland.
heating up

Garland files motion to unseal Trump search warrant

A look at Biden's political messaging for August
Joe Biden.
the blueprint

A look at Biden's political messaging for August

Trump took the Fifth over 440 times: Report
Donald Trump.
that's a lot of times

Trump took the Fifth over 440 times: Report

Trump increased his legal jeopardy with law he signed in 2018
Trump signs legsilation
Petard-hosting

Trump increased his legal jeopardy with law he signed in 2018

Most Popular

The Daily Show cleverly illustrates Fox News double standard on FBI raids
Trevor Noah
Last Night on Late Night

The Daily Show cleverly illustrates Fox News double standard on FBI raids

The car crash crisis
A car accident.
Briefing

The car crash crisis

Trump increased his legal jeopardy with law he signed in 2018
Trump signs legsilation
Petard-hosting

Trump increased his legal jeopardy with law he signed in 2018