Lately many people have been second-guessing the Obama administration’s political strategy. The conventional wisdom seems to be that President Obama tried to do too much — in particular, that he should have put health care on one side and focused on the economy
I disagree. The Obama administration’s troubles are the result not of excessive ambition, but of policy and political misjudgments. The stimulus was too small; policy toward the banks wasn’t tough enough; and Mr. Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan, who also faced a poor economy early in his administration, did — namely, shelter himself from criticism with a narrative that placed the blame on previous administrations.
About the stimulus: it has surely helped. Without it, unemployment would be much higher than it is. But the administration’s program clearly wasn’t big enough to produce job gains in 2009.
Why was the stimulus underpowered? A number of economists (myself included) called for a stimulus substantially bigger than the one the administration ended up proposing. According to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, however, in December 2008 Mr. Obama’s top economic and political advisers concluded that a bigger stimulus was neither economically necessary nor politically feasible.
Their political judgment may or may not have been correct; their economic judgment obviously wasn’t. Whatever led to this misjudgment, however, it wasn’t failure to focus on the issue: in late 2008 and early 2009 the Obama team was focused on little else. The administration wasn’t distracted; it was just wrong.
The same can be said about policy toward the banks. Some economists defend the administration’s decision not to take a harder line on banks, arguing that the banks are earning their way back to financial health. But the light-touch approach to the financial industry further entrenched the power of the very institutions that caused the crisis, even as it failed to revive lending: bailed-out banks have been reducing, not increasing, their loan balances. And it has had disastrous political consequences: the administration has placed itself on the wrong side of popular rage over bailouts and bonuses.
Finally, about that narrative: It’s instructive to compare Mr. Obama’s rhetorical stance on the economy with that of Ronald Reagan. It’s often forgotten now, but unemployment actually soared after Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. Reagan, however, had a ready answer for critics: everything going wrong was the result of the failed policies of the past. In effect, Reagan spent his first few years in office continuing to run against Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Obama could have done the same — with, I’d argue, considerably more justice. He could have pointed out, repeatedly, that the continuing troubles of America’s economy are the result of a financial crisis that developed under the Bush administration, and was at least in part the result of the Bush administration’s refusal to regulate the banks.
But he didn’t. Maybe he still dreams of bridging the partisan divide; maybe he fears the ire of pundits who consider blaming your predecessor for current problems uncouth — if you’re a Democrat. (It’s O.K. if you’re a Republican.) Whatever the reason, Mr. Obama has allowed the public to forget, with remarkable speed, that the economy’s troubles didn’t start on his watch.
So where do complaints of an excessively broad agenda fit into all this? Could the administration have made a midcourse correction on economic policy if it hadn’t been fighting battles on health care? Probably not. One key argument of those pushing for a bigger stimulus plan was that there would be no second chance: if unemployment remained high, they warned, people would conclude that stimulus doesn’t work rather than that we needed a bigger dose. And so it has proved.
It’s important to remember, also, how important health care reform is to the Democratic base. Some activists have been left disillusioned by the compromises made to get legislation through the Senate — but they would have been even more disillusioned if Democrats had simply punted on the issue.
And politics should be about more than winning elections. Even if health care reform loses Democrats’ votes (which is questionable), it’s the right thing to do.
So what comes next?
At this point Mr. Obama probably can’t do much about job creation. He can, however, push hard on financial reform, and seek to put himself back on the right side of public anger by portraying Republicans as the enemies of reform — which they are.
And meanwhile, Democrats have to do whatever it takes to enact a health care bill. Passing such a bill won’t be their political salvation — but not passing a bill would surely be their political doom.