The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.
Bottom Stories of the Day
The Opposite of Reagan
“Eight years after the financial crisis, unemployment is at 5 percent, deficits are down and G.D.P. is growing,” declares the subheadline of an Andrew Ross Sorkin story in the forthcoming New York Times magazine. “Why do so many voters feel left behind? The president has a theory.”
We have a theory, too. The favorable unemployment figure doesn’t tell the full story. Sorkin:
As Obama also acknowledged, the public anger about the economy is not without empirical basis. A large swath of the nation has dropped out of the labor force completely, and the reality for the average American family is that its household income is $4,000 less than it was when Bill Clinton left office.
When an unemployed person drops out of the labor force—i.e., stops looking for a job—he no longer counts as “unemployed,” even though he is not employed.
As for the deficit, to say that it is down considerably since Obama took office is true but misleading, as the left-leaning site PolitiFact noted last year. The fiscal 2009 deficit—George W. Bush’s last—was a staggering $1.4 trillion; by 2014 it had declined to $485 billion. But the 2009 deficit was unusually high owing to the bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis. The deficit for each year from 2010 through 2014 was also higher than in any of the other Bush years, 2002 through 2008. And the national debt—the cumulation of all those deficits—has nearly doubled during Obama’s presidency.
And although gross domestic product is growing, it is doing so very slowly. “First-quarter U.S. gross domestic product hit the Tape this morning, and it was pretty poor,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “The economy grew at a 0.5% annualized rate, below just about everybody’s already weak expectations and the worst ‘print’ in two years.”
What’s Obama’s theory? It’s not a new one. Things have been going well, he insists; he’s just done a lousy job of explaining how well:
Obama . . . was unable or unwilling to rhetorically underscore the severity of the crisis as it unfolded, so perhaps what should have been seen as successes were seen as failures. “It was a delicate balance throughout 2009 and 2010 to be straight with the American people about the depths of the problem, how close we were to disaster, without scaring the heck out of them,” Obama said.
Making matters worse, Obama faced political opposition, as is normal for a national leader in a two-party democratic republic:
“How people feel about the economy,” Obama told me, giving one part of his own theory, is influenced by “what they hear.” He went on: “And if you have a political party—in this case, the Republicans—that denies any progress and is constantly channeling to their base, which is sizable, say, 40 percent of the population, that things are terrible all the time, then people will start absorbing that.”
The president also tells Sorkin: “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter, then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
There are a couple of problems with this part of the theory. For one, it’s not just Republicans who’ve criticized the Obama economy:
“Millions and millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America he painted and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives,” [Bill] Clinton himself said of Obama’s economy in March, while on the campaign trail for his wife. “People are upset, frankly; they’re anxiety-ridden, they’re disoriented, because they don’t see themselves in that picture.”
For another, the president’s claim that the Democrats’ losses in Congress were the result of failure to communicate leaves out a crucial part of the story. The president and his Democratic allies in Congress spent much of 2009 and 2010 promoting and bullying through a “health-care reform” bill, the public opposition to which was a key factor if not the key factor in the Democrats’ loss of the House in 2010.
The piece does eventually get around to ObamaCare, about which Sorkin observes: “Americans do not yet seem to be feeling the benefits of the new program, in part because the benefits remain uncertain.” That’s quite an understatement.
Sorkin himself undercuts Obama’s theory by observing: “Whether a president can truly improve, or damage, an economy remains an open question.” The interview took place during a February visit to a federally subsidized battery factory in Jacksonville, Fla., which occasioned these observations from the interviewer:
In a way, . . . the plant was inadvertently telling a more complicated story, about globalization and the changing nature of commerce. Saft America is a unit of Saft Groupe, a French company with holdings around the world. Sales of lithium-ion batteries have been considerably slower than anticipated, and the factory has yet to turn a profit. The French parent doesn’t expect profitability for another two or three years and has already written down part of its investment on the factory. . . .
When the president’s motorcade left Saft to head back to Air Force One, I noticed something unusual: The plant’s parking lot was extremely small. It dawned on me that Obama’s tour of the factory, filled with photo ops and handshakes, had included very little interaction with workers. Instead, he was shown machine after machine, mostly operated by computers. . . . This giant mecca of innovation, a physical marvel that if built several decades ago would have easily employed a few thousand people, employs only 300. . . .
Obama noted the robots, too. “We just saw here those robots were pretty impressive, but also pointed to the direction the economy is going,” he said.
Such innovations are a mixed blessing, for which one can hardly blame (or credit) the president. But to say the president can’t do very much is different from saying, as Obama does, that he has done great things but has been denied credit because of his inferior communication skills.
The article concludes with Obama restating his theory and disparaging Ronald Reagan:
“If we can’t puncture some of the mythology around austerity, politics or tax cuts or the mythology that’s been built up around the Reagan revolution, where somehow people genuinely think that he slashed government and slashed the deficit and that the recovery was because of all these massive tax cuts, as opposed to a shift in interest-rate policy—if we can’t describe that effectively, then we’re doomed to keep on making more and more mistakes.”
Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator,” which, while not inaccurate, was something of a backhanded compliment. The implication was that while he was an effective salesman, his policies were no good—or at least that was the implication intended by those who, like Obama, opposed Reagan’s policies on ideological grounds.
Obama, then, is the anti-Reagan: His approach to policy is roughly the opposite, and when the public does not respond with enthusiasm, he must be the Rotten Communicator. The actual economic results don’t figure into the theory.
For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.