Obama has done nearly everything he wanted. That’s the problem.
President Obama delivered a State of the Union address Tuesday night that by the account of his own advisers is more campaign document than a plan for governing. He’s running against Republicans in Congress, Reaganomics, wealthy bankers and inequality.
Normally a President at the start of his fourth year would be running on his record, accentuating the legislation he’s passed. Mr. Obama can’t do that with any specificity because the economic recovery has been so weak and the legislation he has passed is so unpopular. So last night he took credit for the shale gas revolution he had nothing to do with and proposed new policies to “spread the wealth around,” as he famously told Joe the Plumber in 2008 before he took the words back. We thought he meant it then, and now he’s admitting it.
Perhaps this will work if Republicans nominate a standard-bearer who is damaged, or too cautious or guilty to challenge this politics of envy. Mr. Obama clearly has Mitt Romney and his 14% effective tax rate in his sights (see the editorial nearby). The President will try to portray Mr. Romney as Mr. 1%, and if the Republican settles for defending the current tax code, he will lose. He needs a tax reform proposal of his own, as well as the self-confidence to argue for it in the same moral terms that Mr. Obama will attack him.
Meantime, as Mr. Obama begins his in power, it’s a good moment to recount the economic record that he’d rather not talk about. The President inherited a deep recession, but in political terms that should have been a blessing. History shows that the deeper the recession, the sharper the recovery, and Mr. Obama was poised by take credit for the economy’s natural recuperative powers. Instead, we’ve had the weakest recovery since the Great Depression and stubbornly high joblessness.
The nearby chart compares rates of quarterly growth during the Reagan and Obama economic recoveries. The comparison is apt because both recoveries followed deep recessions in which the jobless rate reached more than 10%. Once the Reagan recovery got cooking, in 1983, growth stayed above 5% for 18 months and never fell below 3.3% for 13 consecutive quarters.
In the Obama recovery, growth has never exceeded 4% in any quarter and fell off markedly in mid-2010 through the third quarter of 2011. For the first nine months of 2011, growth averaged less than 1.2%. The economy finally picked up again in the fourth quarter, but still at a rate that is subpar for a recovery that long ago should have become robust and durable.
As he runs for re-election, Mr. Obama is trying to campaign as an incumbent who is striving to help the economy but has been stymied at every turn by Congress. Not even MSNBC can believe this. For two years he had the largest Democratic majorities in Congress since the 1970s and achieved nearly everything he wanted.
The New Yorker magazine this week has posted on its website a 57-page memo that economic adviser Larry Summers wrote to Mr. Obama in December 2008. It lays out nearly his entire agenda for the “stimulus,” reviving housing, the auto bailout and saving the financial industry. If anything, the memo overstates what would be needed to stabilize the financial panic, but nearly all of the stimulus spending priorities that the memo deemed “feasible” made it into law. They simply didn’t work as promised.
The Pelosi Congress also passed ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, cash for clunkers, the housing tax credit, and much more. The only Obama priority it didn’t pass was cap-and-trade, which was killed by Senate Democrats.
Mr. Obama’s regulators also currently have some 149 major rules underway, which are those that cost more than $100 million. The 112th Congress hasn’t been able to kill a single major rule. The most it has been able to do is extend the Bush tax rates—which helped the economy by avoiding a tax shock—and slow the rate of increase in federal spending. This President has been “obstructed” less than anyone since LBJ.
Mr. Obama clearly has a spring in his step these days, figuring that the public hates Congress and thinks Republicans run it, that the GOP will field a weak presidential candidate, and that he can fool the public into believing only Mitt Romney’s taxes will rise if Mr. Obama wins a second term. He has only one big obstacle: his record.