The Campaign Spot

Taking the Alter Challenge on Obama’s Record

Last night I appeared on the radio program of Tom Bevan, co-founder of RealClearPolitics, with Jonathan Alter — formerly of Newsweek, now with Bloomberg News — who has challenged readers to prove to him that Barack Obama has been a bad president.

Alter said he has received more than 1,000 responses, ranging from thoughtful  to, er, probably what you would expect from a question that suggests that disappointment or disapproval of the president is a national egregious misjudgment. Before you berate him, at least credit Alter for concluding that Paul Krugman’s political advice to the president is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. (My words, not his.)

Tom’s radio program doesn’t run long enough to lay out every Obama policy mistake from a conservative perspective. And none of that is likely to be persuasive to a liberal who looks at the conservative worldview and concludes, “Well, that’s just wrong.”

So instead, let’s look at Obama’s presidency through the lens of an apolitical independent who doesn’t think much about policy details. To this hypothetical  voter, the single biggest problem has Obama’s failure to deliver — they’ve heard the president’s near-perpetual pledges that prosperity is just around the corner, followed by consistent disappointment.

Any president can botch a policy, but Obama compounded his mistake by constantly believing that the stimulus was working when the data throughout 2009 and 2010 indicated anemic economic growth and a jobs market that was stagnant at best. Obama, Biden, and the rest of the economic team behaved and spoke as if a real recovery was just around the corner, even running around with the slogan “Recovery Summer,” but the signs of stagnation have been consistent over the past three years.

So why has recovery from this economic recession/depression been different from most others?

Right now, non-banking companies are sitting on piles of cash — Moody’s puts it at one and a quarter TRillion, with a T-R. These cash reserves have increased one-half trillion since 2008. Why are they not using that cash to hire people? Different companies will give you different answers, but they have deep anxieties and uncertainty about what’s coming next out of Washington. The National Federation of Independent Business finds small-business owners’ optimism plummeting again, with regulation and taxes ranking number two and three in these businesses’ lists of biggest problems (number one was low sales). (Collectively, taxes and regulation are listed as the top problem of 36 percent of small businesses, compared to 23 percent saying ‘low sales.’)

If you want businesses to start hiring at a faster pace, Washington needs to say to employers A) we will not raise your taxes, B) we will not make you pay a ton more for your employees’ health insurance, and C) we will not make you pay a ton more for energy costs through either cap-and-trade or new EPA regulations on energy production.

Alter asks, “Does any president who presides over 9 percent unemployment deserve to lose?” Well, yeah, particularly if that 9 percent unemployment persists for four years or so.

For the entirety of the Bush years, despite hearing from our friends on the Left about how bad things were, unemployment was between 4 percent and 6 percent. Let’s face it, if unemployment were 5 percent, Obama would be near-certain for reelection.

Alter mentioned the now-tired point about the fact that the economy is at least now adding jobs. But as I said last night, we’re not adding jobs at the rate need to keep pace with normal workforce growth — usually 100,000 to 200,000 jobs per month. Second, millions of Americans have left the workforce during Obama’s term. If you throw them into the total, the unemployment rate is closer to 11 percent and this economy looks even crappier.

Alter writes:

When Obama took office, the economy was losing about 750,000 jobs a month and heading for another Great Depression. The recession ended (at least for a while) and we now are adding several thousand jobs a month — anemic growth, but an awful lot better than the alternative. How did that happen? Luck?

Notice the extraordinarily low bar for a not-bad president: merely ceasing to lose 700,000 jobs per month. Why are we not losing 700,000 jobs per month? Because we hit bottom, and we are now “bouncing along the bottom,” a phrase recently used to describe the housing markets. From Alter’s perspective, this current stagnation is the best anyone could possibly hope to “enjoy.” He’s Jack Nicholson arguing that this is as good as it gets.

The stimulus was not sufficiently stimulative. Infrastructure spending can be useful — imagine widening the roads in the most heavily trafficked areas, reducing commuting time for millions of Americans and shortening shipping time for billions in goods — but it’s not particularly fast-moving and it’s not, as the president later admitted that he learned, “shovel-ready.” If I had a magic wand, I would have eliminated the entire payroll tax for the entirety of 2009, effectively giving every American a 7 percent raise and making every employee 7 percent less costly to every employer; the self-employed would have received the equivalent of a 14 percent raise. (I realize a bunch of other smart conservatives disagree on this, but I would hope everybody could agree it beats replacing five-year-old sidewalks in Boynton, Oklahoma.)

There’s plenty more, of course. Obama pledging to put away childish things in his inaugural address and then cutting off debate with Republican lawmakers by declaring, “I won”; Obama the senator who said that voting to raise the debt limit was a sign of failure; Obama the senator declaring that increasing the deficit by $4 trillion is “unpatriotic,” when Obama the president has now raised it by $4.02 trillion in a much shorter period of time . . .

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