My review of the Obama Adminstration
This is the second in a series of posts about the election inspired by a facebook conversation.
When Obama was elected I said that if he got us out of Iraq, passed a universal health care bill, and turned the economy around, I’d consider the presidency wildly successful, even if he didn’t accomplish anything else. So, let’s start with these three issues:
1) Got us out of Iraq. Done. I’m not going to say that Iraq is a peaceful democracy, but it didn’t completely implode the moment we pulled out, which is frankly better than I expected. Bonus credit for getting bin Laden.
2) Passed a universal health care bill. Done. It’s far from perfect and sure not the bill I would have hoped to have seen, but it’s still a BFD, as Biden said. It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption of a bill, and made even more convoluted by many states’ resistance to implementing it, by the Supreme Court decision that the Medicaid expansion is optional, and by the way that employer-provided family coverage is being treated, but it’s still a huge step forward. It’s already made a difference in millions of lives — particularly people with serious illnesses who are no longer subject to lifetime limits, but also young adults who are able to stay on their parents’ plans — and will make a difference to millions more come 2014.
3) Turned the economy around. Well, you could technically say that the economy is “turned around” because the situation is no longer getting worse, but I don’t think there’s anyone who disputes that the economy is far worse than we’d like it to be, and is not getting better fast enough. That said, I am completely convinced that the economy is far better than it would have been absent the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and it would have been even better if the Republicans in the House hadn’t blocked additional stimulus at the point that it became clear that the recession was far deeper than anyone had realized in February 2009.
There are plenty of people who say that the President is the “captain of the ship” and that he or she gets credit or blame for whatever happens. This is basically the core of Romney’s economic message, and the econometric models suggest that the economic situation often tips elections. I think the President (and Governors) have relatively little power over the economy, so I don’t subscribe to this approach, but if you apply it fairly across parties, and say that you never vote to reelect a President when the economy is bad, I don’t think I can argue with you.
For me, the more interesting question is what could Obama really have done differently, given the economic conditions he inherited and the political situation, that would have made a difference in the economy? I think there are three possible answers, and I’m not sure if any of them are really compelling:
- Robert Samuelson argues that pushing for health care reform in the recession was a mistake. I think he’s completely nuts in suggesting that health care reform made the economy weaker. But the argument that it poisoned the political environment in Washington and made it harder to work together on economic policies is more plausible.
- There’s a progressive argument that Obama should have pushed harder and earlier for a big second stimulus, in particular one that involved direct job creation in public sector jobs. The Administration was very reluctant to go that route, in part for political reasons, in part because they were anxious that the majority of the spending on the stimulus bill should have dual payoffs — both in immediate job creation and in long-term shaping of the economy. That’s why they put so much money into things like solar energy and health care information technology. A lot of these took a long time to get going, and the payoff wasn’t visible even when the spending started. I think there’s at least a possibility that if the President had pushed for direct job creation, it would have gotten public support.
- I’m not an expert on housing policy — I feel like I need a t-shirt that says “everything I know about the housing collapse, I learned from Planet Money” — but there seems to me to be a reasonable argument that the Administration could have done something more effective to respond to the housing market collapse, and the failure to do so has been a drag on the economy (see articles from the Washington Post and the NY Times for more detail).
So, I don’t think the Obama has been a perfect president, and I think he looks particularly bad in comparison to the overinflated expectations created by the Hope and Change rhetoric from the last campaign. But I think he’s been a pretty good one, and I’ll be voting FOR him in November, not just against Romney and Ryan.