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Why Obama doesn't get enough credit

Why hasn’t the president gotten more credit for what history may ultimately judge as a record of remarkable accomplishments?

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama speaks during his meeting with the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness in the State Dining Room in Washington January 17, 2012. Bernstein argues that the president doesn't get enough credit for the things he has accomplished while in office.

I’ve always said that if someone calculated a ratio of credit-for-things-accomplished/things-accomplished President Obama would score extremely low.  Andrew Sullivan collects the facts.

One question I was left with after reading this was why does the President score so low on that ratio?  Why hasn’t he gotten more credit for what I believe history will ultimately judge as a record of remarkable accomplishments?

A few thoughts:

–The main reason is that people don’t do “counterfactuals”—things are getting better but still pretty bad for a lot of folks and pointing out that “it coulda been worse,” while true, is not…um…good politics.  It didn’t help that the admin—and I played a role in this one—underestimated how high unemployment would go.

–On the other hand, where we were and where we are is (good politics, that is)…and good economics too (if we don’t accurately evaluate the impact of policies like the Recovery Act, we won’t be guided by lessons learned next time).

–A useful concept in this regard is what economists call the “swing”—(see  table; and you thought we economists weren’t swingers!).  It’s the difference between changes in a variable over two different periods.  So if GDP was falling 9% last year and growing 4% this year, the swing—the change from how you were falling to how fast you’re now growing is 4%-(-9%), or 13%.  The swings in GDP and jobs over the President’s first year in office are historically large.

–People don’t like bailouts.  Saving the banks and autos was necessary but unpopular.  I get why helping the banks was unpopular; I don’t really get why the autos weren’t.  People particularly dislike bailouts when too little is asked of the recipients (again, this should have favored the autos, where creditors took haircuts, unions made concessions, execs were replaced…I think that story was just not well explained).

Housing: missing from Sullivan’s review, these programs underperformed, and millions were hit by the bursting of the bubble.

Stuff Kicks in Later : Health care reform, financial regulation, consumer protection—most people haven’t yet benefitted from these changes.

–A level of opposition heretofore unseen: when a national leader (senate minority leader Mitch McConnell) says out loud that his party’s #1 goal is not jobs, deficit reduction, improving education, the business climate, etc…but is instead defeating the President, you’re into some unchartered territory.  These are the same folks that flirted with default on US debt.  When one side is willing to self-inflict wounds of that magnitude on the body politic, it’s awfully hard for anyone to look good.

Budget deficits: Polls show most people actually hold a reasonable view of federal budget deficits in that they don’t see them as our biggest problem right now (that would be “jobs”).  But the echo chamber resounds with noise about all of our borrowing–Europe’s debt problems amplify the noise–and the admin has had trouble talking about the short-term imperative of more stimulus to attack unemployment at the same time as persuing the longer term imperative of getting on a sustainable budget path.

I’m sure there’s more, but those are some of the big ticket entries.  Still, I could be wrong, but unless the economy heads south again, the truth of Sullivan’s survey will dominate in coming months.  I may be way too optimistic about this, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

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