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Jul. 8 2009 - 6:19 pm | 19 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Could Obama be re-elected despite a bad economy?

Lowell and Barack Obama

Image by Waldo Jaquith via Flickr

Over at Real Clear Politics, Jay Cost makes a characteristically good point, arguing that President Obama erred by devoting too little attention to the stimulus package and too much to cap and trade and health insurance reform:

All in all, the process that produced the stimulus bill was not a good one. Rather than use his enormous political capital to construct a bill designed to confront the economic crisis head-on, the President left its construction mostly up to Congress, which is inclined to particularism and waste. It was then rushed through the legislature without a full review. The opposition to it was painted as politically motivated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the final product was a bill that will not produce much effect until some time in the future – and now some are calling for a second stimulus.

Meanwhile, the President and Congress are moving forward carefully and deliberately on health care. There’s a robust debate that includes congressional committees across both chambers, the President, members of both parties, and the public. The President has clearly indicated that this is his top legislative priority, and he intends to do what is necessary to get a good bill that he can sign into law. Over the next few months, Washington’s focus will squarely be on health care, even though it sits well below the economy on lists of public concerns.

This seems backwards to me. It’s as if the economy was a secondary concern that had to be dealt with quickly so attention could shift to the rest of the President’s domestic agenda. Why so much focus on health care and so little focus on the economy? Perhaps it’s because Obama – like many Democratic Presidents before him – wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt. For whatever reason, they seem to dream of getting themselves into the pantheon of leaders who expand the federal government’s role in the provision of social welfare. And health care is the white whale of the Democratic Party’s social welfare agenda. The President who finally delivers is guaranteed the spot next to the Squire of Hyde Park.

I understand why President Obama might feel this temptation. Democrats see themselves as members of the progressive party, and their leaders are expected to make progress on issues of social welfare. Their overwhelming numbers in the legislature augur well for a bill – so shouldn’t Obama and company give it a try? Yet, there are other factors to consider. FDR guided Social Security through Congress in 1935, after he had already dedicated the government to massive relief and recovery efforts, after GDP had stabilized, and after the public had validated his initial efforts in the 1934 midterm. LBJ pushed for the Great Society in the mid-60s, a time of immense prosperity. Expanding social welfare requires a meeting of the man and the moment, which helps explain why some well regarded presidents (Truman and Clinton) failed in their attempts.

This moment is calling for a focus on the economy. That’s why Barack Obama has the top job. It’s not because of cap-and-trade, not because of health care, not because of his magnetic presence on the campaign trail – but because the economy was shrinking at a 6.1% annualized rate by Election Day.

Obama should have focused more on the economic stimulus package, as it would help him politically and the nation. And his misstep will likely cost the Democrats many seats in the 2010 congressional elections; certainly the Democrats benefited in the 1982 by-elections when the economy stayed in its deep recession and they picked up 27 seats. Yet I wonder if this will cost him in 2012.

The last 75 years of presidential political history suggests it won’t. Roosevelt, Reagan, and Clinton all inherited bad economies and all won re-election. Sure, their policies helped reduce the jobless rate, which may be the most important economic indicator for a politician’s electoral fortunes. But if a president’s policies don’t stem rising joblessness, is he doomed to defeat?

Maybe, but unless I am missing something, we don’t have a readily available example. American voters may well vote for prosperity regardless of who’s in power, as Cost contends. But they also might vote for a sharp and likable leader, such as Obama, regardless of the economic picture. We don’t know.


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  1. collapse expand

    Like anyone has a clue what the economy will be in 2012, and how anyone thinks that the economy can be fixed without fixing health care is just absurd. But then again expecting anything but the absurd from Mr. Cost is well frankly, absurd. And btw Mark if you and the right think you can stop health care reform with flimsy stuff like this you’re sorely mistaken.

  2. collapse expand

    Our president has made poor choices that have made things worse. Healthcare talk of a second stimulus and we are broke! This is a gov’nt take over and I and others are angry at all of his broken promise’s. I do believe healthcare and Afganastan will be his demise if things dont go right. He has alot vested on both fronts. Hillary or any Ind or Conservative would never have gotten this free pass.!I do think he isnt representing us well abroad and I am amazed that people have bestowed this trust in a man who really spent all his time running for pres.!
    Renee

  3. collapse expand

    I am in healthcare . I am a physical therapist and this isnt healtcare reform its a take over! The private sector are people too have families to take care off. They will loose their jobs because they cant compete with gov’nt. Reform I am for takeover I am not!

  4. collapse expand

    Hold it right there. The stimulus package was rushed because the economy was in free fall and the Republican party was in a shambles. Notice that the economy is no longer in free fall. That’s no small thing. Banks and whole industries were collapsing. How soon we forget. The Republican Party is still in a shambles, which is why the Democrats are pushing cap and trade and health care now instead of waiting until next year. That doesn’t mean no one is paying attention to the economy. There can be more than one ball in the air at a time. And the fact that some are calling for a second stimulus doesn’t necessarily mean the first stimulus failed. A stimulus is an orgy of discretionary spending that has its own appeal for the party in power.

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    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (Encounter Books, 2007). He was born in San Francisco in 1970 and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from Santa Clara University and the University of Chicago (M.A. in Social Sciences, '97). In between, he worked, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for an inner-city housing agency in Baton Rouge, La. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. He, his wife, and two daughters live in the Washington, D.C. region.

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