Will Obama Be Better Off in Four Years?

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Unlike Martin O’Malley, lots of Democrats have been handling the “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” question well, with variants of: The economy was falling off a cliff in 2008; President Barack Obama stabilized that and now we are growing again; but there is a lot more work to be done.

This is the right answer, but it doesn’t go as far as some Democrats think. Even if Americans are better off than they were four years ago, they’re not where they expected to be. A case that Obama did as well as he could have over the last four years has to be coupled with an argument that he can do better over the next four.

Obama’s defense of his record is basically this: The U.S. economic recovery, weak though it is, has been better than those of most advanced countries. Republicans have not put forward a convincing case that they would have done any better -- and they blocked some of Obama’s efforts to boost the economy with fiscal policy.

This case is contestable. Most of the world’s advanced countries are in Europe, and are weighed down by the Eurozone crisis; it’s not exactly a huge achievement that we outperformed them. Compared against non-European advanced countries, like Canada, Israel and Australia, our performance looks less outstanding.

Obama also can’t put all the blame for inaction on Congress. Although it blocked his efforts to get more fiscal stimulus, he also missed opportunities on monetary and housing policy that could have boosted growth.

But let’s say the “pro” case is right. What does this say about Obama’s likely accomplishments if re-elected? As Ramesh Ponnuru writes today, a re-elected Obama would face a Republican House (and maybe Senate) that is more obstructionist than ever. To the extent he has an economic agenda, how does he hope to get it enacted?

Liberals tend to say this argument amounts to blackmail -- if Republicans aren’t given control of the government, they’ll stop it from functioning properly. That’s only half the story.

The other half is that Obama is unusually bad at working with a hostile, dysfunctional legislature. Andrew Cuomo has gotten the New York state legislature -- the same body that just three years ago gave us this fiasco -- to function. Bill Clinton got a lot done with the Republican Congress that impeached him.

A Democrat with Cuomo’s or Clinton’s savvy could defeat Senator Mitch McConnell’s obstruct-everywhere strategy. Obama just doesn’t have it. And this is the problem with the “I did as well as conditions allowed” defense. It amounts to an admission that Obama has given up hope of achieving any more change in his second term.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)


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