One Take On The Big Obama Mistake

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David Leonhardt has an excellent essay in the New York Times pinpointing a key turning point in the Obama Administration that has not been much explored. On the evening of Dec. 3, 2009, the Obama White House got word that job losses had all but ceased in the previous month. The White House celebrated. Writes Leonhardt:

Today, that brief period of optimism looks like one of the worst things that could have happened to the White House, other Democrats and, above all, the economy. The nascent recovery removed the urgency that the Obama administration and Democratic senators felt in early 2009. They still favored more action, like aid to states and tax cuts, but it was no longer their top priority. They assumed a recovery was under way.

We now know, of course, that the recovery has stalled. From November of last year — the month whose job report brought cheer to the White House — to May, the economy added almost one million jobs, thanks partly to census hiring. Since May, almost 400,000 jobs have disappeared.

And so Democrats find themselves facing the wrong end of a landslide election, and Christina Romer, the White House official most in charge of advising on the unemployment rate, found herself in September of 2010, in her final speech as a public official, announcing that far more needed to be done.

The thing I do regret is that there is still so much unfinished business. I would give anything if unemployment really were down to 8 percent or lower. The American people are suffering terribly. Policymakers need to find the will to take the steps needed to finish the job and return the American economy to full health, and no one should be blocking essential actions for partisan reasons. . . . While we would all love to find the inexpensive magic bullet to our economic troubles, the truth is, it almost surely doesn’t exist. The only surefire ways for policymakers to substantially increase aggregate demand in the short run are for the government to spend more and tax less. In my view, we should be moving forward on both fronts.

But by the time Romer said these words, Washington was already frozen in the midterm election cycle. And so now voters will go to the polls knowing that the problem has not been solved, and many will blame Obama for failing to deliver the cure. The president, meanwhile, has not been able to offer any more comfort beyond, “This is what change looks like. It is methodical. It is slow,” lines he spoke Monday night in Rhode Island.

Those three sentences, in so many ways, sum up the situation of a politician who won the White House by selling the American people on “the fierce urgency of now.” They explain why Obama has lost so much of the independent vote.