Could Obama be re-elected despite a bad economy?
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.