Certifiable Space Case: The Premature Obituary of Obama's Presidency

Dewey-Defeats-TrumanAnother "liberal" beltway opinion writer, Harold Meyerson, caused a bit of a hu-ah moment, so to speak, in the Left Puritan blogsphere with his backhanded, poorly thought out column in the Washington Post earlier this week. In a piece that the nutroots ate up like a tripple chocolate Sundae, under the veil of discussing how history will judge President Obama's economic policies, Meyerson purports to write, at once, both history's judgment on President Obama's economic policies and his political obituary.

Meyerson starts with this juvenile paragraph:
When historians look back at how Barack Obama lost the 2012 election — or won it only because the Republicans nominated a certifiable space case — they will doubtless focus on his first few months in office and ponder why he didn’t do more to stanch the recession and arrest the downward mobility of the American people.
I'll tell you what a certifiable space case is - it's this column by Meyerson. For a moment, let's set aside the fact that Meyerson is attempting to write the history of Barack Obama's presidency when Obama has been in office for less than two and a half years. So historians will focus on the first few months in office of Barack Obama and ask why he didn't do more, will they? Sure, if by "historians" Meyerson means people who are bereft of historical perspective, he might be right. But so long as we are talking about how historians will judge something or what they will ask, it seems logical that one will want to examine the history of the conditions Barack Obama took office and what, from it, he delivered.

Barack Obama, as it has been mentioned, took the helm of this economy not just after the proverbial Titanic hit the ice berg, he became the captain after the ship nearly completely drowned and its occupants started abandoning ship. We had been mired in the worst economic calamity in this country's history since the Great Depression and paralleled by no other part of our history. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month - nearly a million a month - when President Obama took office.

The severity of the job market was of course not the only bad economic indicator. We were experiencing a complete collapse of the financial system, causing everyone's retirement savings to disappear along with their home values. All in all, our economic house was on fire. It is from there that President Obama started. And today, the economy is growing as are jobs, albeit way too slowly, the financial markets are stable, and an entire American industry (the US auto industry) has made a stunning comeback thanks to the insistence of one man: Barack Obama that we not leave the industry and its workers behind. The fire has been put out and the rebuilding started.

So of course, we have the puritanical whining from Mr. Meyerson complains that his fire department put out his fire but did not immediately rebuild the house, saying that President Obama's economic recovery plan (the Recovery Act) "might [have] halt[ed] the economy’s slide but were hardly sufficient to turn it around."

I hate to break it to Mr. Meyerson but when your house is on fire, you put out the fire first. You don't complain that the firefighter got in the way of your new tiles in the kitchen. When you have bleeding that lands you in the emergency room, your health professionals try to first stop the bleeding. I doubt you'd complain to the doctor that she stopped your internal bleeding, but she did not, immediately, make your cancer disappear.

The truth in this is also blurred, of course. The Recovery Act made significant investment in long and short terms. In the short term, it delivered unemployment extension with 65% COBRA paid for by the government, targeted tax cuts to the middle class and the poor, increase in state aid, etc. In the longer term, it made unprecedented investments in green energy and infrastructure. Ask anyone who is or was unemployed if the what the Recovery Act did for them was insignificant. Ask a teacher or firefighter whose job was saved by the Recovery Act and subsequent state aid packages if it was insignifcant.

But on the other hand, to Mr. Meyerson, it's really about the optics.
by opting for barely perceptible tax cuts, preserving public services and a glacial rollout of public works, the Obama administration had devised a stimulus whose price tag was apparent to all but whose achievements were all but invisible.
First of all, for someone claiming to support economic stimulus, this is preposterous argument. "Barely perceptible tax cuts" are exactly the most effective type of tax cut in stimulating an economy based on consumer spending. It enables the recipient to buy some extra groceries, or take their family out to eat for a day in a month, or be the difference between being able to afford some back-to-school supplies for one's child and not. But it's not noticeable, which is why it gets spent - you know, as in consumer spending, the driver of our economy. When you give tax cuts in a lump sum, like Bush's bribe of $600, people tend to save it or use it to pay down debt rather than in consumer spending.

And umm, what's wrong with preserving public services? As for a glacial rollout of the works, this chart from Recovery.gov says it all:

Recovery Act Overview of Funding as of June 3, 2011

Just like watching glaciers move, isn't it?

One may also argue that the achievements of the Recovery Act was "all but invisible" precisely because of people like Mr. Meyerson on the Puritan Left, who kept complaining that it wasn't big enough/didn't last long enough, blah blah blah instead of using their voices to draw attention to the the successes of the Recovery Act. You know, things like the fact that the Recovery Act raised economic growth by as much as 3.2 percentage points, and raised total employment in the past two years by as much as 3.6 million, or that it funded 574,013 jobs in the first three months of this year alone.

Interestingly, Meyerson's column leaves no room for the stimulus measures since the Recovery Act, like multiple packages to help states and extend unemployment benefits, a health care bill that invested significantly in health professionals and technologies, small business tax write offs, and of course, investment in the American auto industry, and more targeted tax breaks to people who are most likely to spend any extra cash.

But of course, it all gets back to the Why-Isn't-Obama-FDR line of arguments for the Puritan Left: Obama really needed a public works project akin to FDR, and he wouldn't listen to, you know, the know-it-alls. And how would such a program pass the Congress? Well, that's all on Obama, too.
Such a program would have required a massive and brilliant sales job from Obama at the outset of his presidency, given the decades of the American right’s delegitimization of government.
See? Obama didn't pound enough podiums. He didn't give enough speeches. He didn't grab Congressmen by their collars and give them a public beating on the steps of the United States Capitol. He didn't wave a magic wand and magically change the makeup of Congress, the rules of the Senate and the public opinion all in one fell swoop. Sure, Republicans would just roll over and play dead, and Lieberman would have no choice if only President Obama did enough podium pounding.

Of course, Mr. How-will-history-judge-Obama neglects to provide some much needed historical perspective on the WPA of the 1930s. Namely, the makeup of Congress at the time WPA passed. The Congress that passed the WPA was the Congress that formed after the first midterm election of FDR's presidency. So first, even FDR did not pass a government works program in his "at the outset of his presidency." Odd. But let's return to Congressional make up. In the 74th Congress, one that passed the funding for WPA to enable FDR's executive order, Republicans weren't just a minority, they were an endangered species. Democrats occupied 322 seats in the House, and 70 out of 96 seats in the Senate (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states).

Armed with this historical data point, maybe Mr. Meyerson can tell us just what parallel universe he is living in where it would be possible for either today's Congress or the last Congress to pass a FDR-style WPA.

It is one thing to argue on the economic merits that the Recovery Act was too little. On that, we can actually have a substantive debate, where we can discuss facts like the subsequent stimulus measures that the Democratic Congress and President Obama enacted without calling it "stimulus." We can argue about the feasibility of a bigger package in the makeup of the contemporary Congress. But it is quite another to join in with the far right and claim that the Recovery Act hasn't worked at all. I am getting really really tired of this Monday morning quarterbacking and the bad punditry.

Unlike columnists like Mr. Meyerson, real historians don't have the luxury to hang their hat on a particular pony from one end of the political spectrum in their analyses. Barack Obama is already a transformational president.

He's the President who pulled us back from the brink of a full on economic disaster, whatever his detractors on either side of the political pendulum have to say about it. He is the President who revitalized the American auto industry. He's the president who passed health care reform that that presidents and Congresses have been talking about for over a half a century. He's the president who put common sense rules of the road back in the financial industry through the most sweeping regulatory reform since the Great Depression. He's the president who streamlined student loans and signed into law a credit card bill of rights and women's equal pay for women. He's the president who more significantly expanded the rights of LGBT Americans than any before him, including repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, ensuring hospitals honor the relationships of same sex couples and offering Medicaid protections to gay couples.

He's the president who has ended or is ending two wars. He's the president who's securing loose nukes and reducing nuclear warheads. Oh, and AxelFoley pointed out below in the comments, President Obama is the President who took out Osama bin Laden.

I am no historian, but I think those are among things history is likely to say about President Obama.