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Obamanomics: A Counter-counterhistory

- October 1, 2012

In a column entitled, “Obamanomics: A Counterhistory”, David Leonhardt makes the reasonable claim that (a) the Obama team could’ve done more to get the economy out of recession, and (b) they would’ve done so, had they only realized what was going on. Leonhardt writes:

After successfully preventing another depression, in 2009, they have spent much of the last three years underestimating the economy’s weakness. That weakness, in turn, has become Mr. Obama’s biggest vulnerability, helping cost Democrats control of the House in 2010 and endangering his accomplishments elsewhere. . . .

We can never know for sure what the past four years would have been like if the administration and the Fed had been more worried about the economy. But my reading of the evidence — and some former Obama aides agree — points strongly to the idea that the misjudging of the downturn did affect policy and ultimately the economy.

Mr. Obama’s biggest mistake as president has not been the story he told the country about the economy. It’s the story he and his advisers told themselves.

This could well be. But I’d like to offer another theory, a counter-counterhistory, if you will, based on some speculations I had the day Obama was elected (and which I wrote up after the 2010 midterm elections):

On not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past

Why didn’t Obama do a better job of leveling with the American people? In his first months in office, why didn’t he anticipate the example of the incoming British government and warn people of economic blood, sweat, and tears? Why did his economic team release overly-optimistic graphs such as shown here? Wouldn’t it have been better to have set low expectations and then exceed them, rather than the reverse?

I don’t know, but here’s my theory. When Obama came into office, I imagine one of his major goals was to avoid repeating the experiences of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in their first two years.

Clinton, you may recall, was elected with less then 50% of the vote, was never given the respect of a “mandate” by congressional Republicans, wasted political capital on peripheral issues such as gays in the military, spent much of his first two years on centrist, “responsible” politics (budgetary reform and NAFTA) which didn’t thrill his base, and then got rewarded with a smackdown on heath care and a Republican takeover of Congress. Clinton may have personally weathered the storm but he never had a chance to implement the liberal program.

Carter, of course, was the original Gloomy Gus, and his term saw the resurgence of the conservative movement in this country, with big tax revolts in 1978 and the Reagan landslide two years after that. It wasn’t all economics, of course: there were also the Russians, Iran, and Jerry Falwell pitching in.

Following Plan Reagan

From a political (but not a policy) perspective, my impression was that Obama’s model was not Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter but Ronald Reagan. Like Obama in 2008, Reagan came into office in 1980 in a bad economy and inheriting a discredited foreign policy. The economy got steadily worse in the next two years, the opposition party gained seats in the midterm election, but Reagan weathered the storm and came out better than ever.

If the goal was to imitate Reagan, what might Obama have done?

– Stick with the optimism and leave the gloom-and-doom to the other party. Check.
– Stand fast in the face of a recession. Take the hit in the midterms with the goal of bouncing back in year 4. Check.
– Keep ideological purity. Maintain a contrast with the opposition party and pass whatever you can in Congress. Check.

The Democrats got hit harder in 2010 than the Republicans in 1982, but the Democrats had further to fall. Obama and his party in Congress can still hope to bounce back in two years.

Avoiding the curse of Bartels

Political scientist Larry Bartels wrote an influential paper, later incorporated into his book, Unequal Democracy, presenting evidence that for the past several decades, the economy generally has done better under Democratic than Republican presidents. Why then, Bartels asked, have Republicans done so well in presidential elections? Bartels gives several answers, including different patterns at the low and high end of the income spectrum, but a key part of his story is timing: Democratic presidents tend to boost the economy when the enter office and then are stuck watching it rebound against them in year 4 (think Jimmy Carter), whereas Republicans come into office with contract-the-economy policies which hurt at first but tend to yield positive trends in time for reelection (again, think Ronald Reagan).

Overall, according to Bartels, the economy does better under Democratic administrations, but at election time, Republicans are better situated. And there’s general agreement among political scientists that voters respond to recent economic conditions, not to the entire previous four years. Bartels and others argue that the systematic differences between the two parties connect naturally to their key constituencies, with new Democratic administrations being under pressure to heat up the economy and improve conditions for wage-earners and incoming Republicans wanting to keep inflation down.

Some people agree with Bartels’s analysis, some don’t. But, from the point of Obama’s strategy, all that matters is that he and his advisers were familiar with the argument that previous Democrats had failed by being too aggressive with economic expansion. Again, it’s the Carter/Reagan example. Under this story, Obama didn’t want to peak too early. So, sure, he wanted a stimulus–he didn’t want the economy to collapse, but he didn’t want to turn the stove on too high and spark an unsustainable bubble of a recovery. In saying this, I’m not attributing any malign motives (any more than I’m casting aspersions of conservatives’ skepticism of unsustainable government-financed recovery). Rather, I’m putting the economic arguments in a political context to give a possible answer to the question of why Obama and congressional Democrats didn’t do things differently in 2009.

In short, Leonhardt’s counterhistory is that the Obama team would’ve been well advised to take out “insurance” against the possibility of a steep recession and slow recovery and presented Americans with a less optimistic attitude and written a more flexible stimulus bill. Fair enough. I defer to Leonhardt on questions of economic policy.

My counter-counterhistory, though, is that the Obama team was taking out insurance against the opposite possibility–the “President Carter scenario” of a fast recovery followed by recession. The one thing they didn’t want to happen was to see the economy decline during 2011-2012. So I wonder if, amid all their disappointment about the scaling back of the stimulus package, they were somewhat relieved because they didn’t want the recovery to happen too soon.

I have no idea what was going on in the conversations of the policy team, but it seems reasonable to me that my counter-counterhistory is part of the story, given the clear parallels with the Reagan presidency.

P.S. Just to be clear: I’m not saying that Obama and his team wanted a slow recovery. Rather, I’m speculating that they didn’t want a too-fast recovery, and that concern could well have affected their choices in policy and messaging.