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By Jay Cost

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Is the Economy Obama's Only Problem?

There is a theory among some liberal commentators that figures that Obama's political position is due not to his own mistakes, but rather to macropolitical forces that are outside his control. Recently, my colleague Sean Trende argued that the political choices Obama has made have contributed to his poor poll position, and I am partial to this point of view.

Yesterday, Ezra Klein offered the contrary position. Here is Klein:

See if this structure seems familiar to you: Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X. Now, his poll numbers have slipped to 44 percent. His party is slated to lose a lot of seats in the 2010 midterms. Obama's decision to do X is to blame.

"X" can be a lot of things. Maybe it's the decision to attempt health-care reform. Or his socialist tendencies. Or his cool, professorial demeanor. In Matt Bai's latest article, John Podesta says it's Obama's pursuit of an ambitious legislative agenda. If he'd spent less time passing legislation, he could've spent more time developing and selling popular themes. In John Judis's latest article, it's the absence of populism in Obama's speeches and policies.

The problem with the essays is that they don't consider the counterfactual. What if Obama had done not-X? Would things really be better for him? How do we know they wouldn't be worse?

Klein then goes on to compare President Obama's current standing in the Gallup poll to Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Reagan - arguing that, in fact, Obama is in a slightly better position. Klein chose this trio because they are "the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn't have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year."

For starters, a point of clarification. None of these Presidents entered office "amid a recession," at least not if we take the National Bureau of Economic Research as the authority on the beginning and end of recessions. The recession of the mid-70s began in late 1973 and ended in early 1975, during President Ford's administration. The economy was still weak when Carter took office, but the next recession did not begin until January, 1980. It ended in July, 1980, meaning that Ronald Reagan also took office when the economy was in recovery, although it was again weak. The recession of the early 1990s had been over for nearly two years prior to the time that Bill Clinton took office.

These past Presidents at least partially "earned" their poor poll positions by the summer of their second year. Clinton's early term was marred by scandal and highly unpopular legislation. Reagan had pushed for an enormous tax cut that seemed to have the opposite effect of what was promised by the Summer of 1982. And Jimmy Carter was a poor chief executive who did not really have the trust of his party when he was nominated; he had to assure the convention in his nomination speech that he was indeed a bona fide Democrat. He did not have the confidence of the voters when he was elected; he won just 50% of the vote despite all the macro forces in his favor, and even then he had to rely heavily on his native South for most of his electoral power. And he never really enjoyed the confidence of the American public when he was President; by the end of 1977, he was struggling to stay above 50%. When I look at the Carter, Clinton, and Reagan numbers, I see in part a weak economy, but I also see these three suffering the consequences of their political decisions.

Check out Klein's graph of presidential midterm losses over time.


Are there structural things going on here? Yes, of course. But there is also more to it than that. Most of the Presidents who lost substantial numbers of seats - Taft in 1910, Harding in 1922, Hoover in 1930, Truman in 1946, Johnson in 1966, Clinton in 1994 - had not handled their political situations very well. The only exception in the above graph is probably Wilson, who achieved a great deal of success in the 63rd Congress, but whose party suffered big losses because of the return of the Progressives to the Republican fold.

Does the economy matter? Yes, of course. But does political management and facility matter, too? Yes, of course.

Unfortunately, it is hard to capture "facility" quantitatively. If you want to graph the President's job approval against GDP or unemployment, that's easy to do. But what about graphing it against competence or ambition or boldness? That's not as easy, which means that quantitative analysis is usually going to de-emphasize these features, not because they are unimportant but because they can't be measured very well. Another important issue with quantitative analysis of the President's situation is the "small n" problem that confronts anybody who wants to compare different Presidents. Stated in intuitive terms, it basically means that the smaller number of observations you have, the harder it is to control for the different contingencies of each observation to get down to the essential features that connect them all together. There have only been 17 Presidents in the last 100 years. That makes it hard to identify the grand laws of presidential political economy. As I mentioned, Obama's situation vis-à-vis the economy was not really similar to Carter, Clinton, or Reagan. He inherited a recession in a way that these three didn't. In fact, the only two Presidents in the last 80 years who inherited a recession were FDR, who took office just when the Great Depression hit its trough, and Truman, who had to deal with the economic slowdown that came with the end of World War II. Neither offers a very clean comparison to Obama's situation, which means that there really is no great historical comparison for President Obama. This, in turn, implies that a straightforward quantitative analysis is not going to be sufficient, that instead a more "qualitative" or interpretive approach, ala Judis or Bai, has to be in the mix if we want to have the best understanding.

A final point. Even if we cede that it is simply a matter of the gods of the economy smiling or frowning upon a President, we have really just begged the question. After all, President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress passed a massive stimulus bill that was supposed to get the economy going again. It did not perform up to expectations, which means that the effect of the economy on the President's poll numbers is mediated by his own actions last winter. Could the stimulus have done a better job in jump starting the economy? There is no authoritative answer to that question.

Here's my position on the President's poll numbers. They are in decline partly for forces beyond his control. [You'll see me shed no tears, however, for President Obama or any modern chief executive who is stuck in this situation. Call it karma. The economy is largely outside the President's control, but that did not stop then-candidate Obama from blasting then-President Bush. Said blasting helped get him elected even though it was "unfair." Now that President Obama has the job, he has to suffer the same sort of criticism that his predecessor had to take from him.] Yet these macro trends do not explain the whole of the President's decline. Something else is going on - and analysts like Bai and Judis are trying to figure out what that something else really is. Whatever one might think of their answers, their projects are legitimate. "It's just the economy" is overly reductionist, suggesting that the whole of presidential history should be reduced to a simple line graph comparing job approval to GDP, and leaving us unable to make distinctions between Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know, there is more to the story than that - the difference between those two Presidents is not simply the economic inflection points during their tenures!