Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why We Can't Wait

"I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years. And ... a year from now I think people are gonna see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still gonna be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's gonna be a one-term proposition."

Barack Obama
Today Show
Feb. 2, 2009

Um, well, the fact is that, in February 2010, unemployment was at 10.4%.

And, logically, it follows that most people did not see progress at that time.

Now, to be fair, no one can see into the future so it is understandable that Barack Obama's forecasts could be a little off. I don't think anyone would have faulted him if there was an impression that his policies had merely stabilized the situation, that there was still work to be done. He could even have been forgiven if unemployment hadn't been entirely tamed yet.

He isn't, after all, an economist. He had no relevant experience in that area prior to his election to the presidency.

Nevertheless, I think something just about everyone can agree on is that stewardship of the economy is an important part of the president's job description. Some presidents are fortunate enough to preside during boom times, others do not, but most receive more credit/blame than they truly deserve.

One thing is certain, it seems to me: If someone chooses to seek the office, he/she must realize that the economy could play a huge role in his/her presidency. That includes the unemployment rate and pursuing policies that encourage job creation and economic growth.

Unemployment was about 6.5% when Obama was elected in November 2008, and it rose to about 8.5% by the time he took the oath of office in January 2009. That's an increase of two full percentage points during the presidential transition period alone — in a nation in which two percentage points represents nearly half of what has been a typical monthly unemployment rate (not the increase) in the last half century.

Then, in Obama's first year as president, unemployment went up another two percentage points.

Is it any wonder that Americans were frightened? A prudent chief executive would put that consideration above his ego and shift gears when it became clear that a policy was not performing as expected. That's what Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. He was never wedded to a single approach and was open to new ideas.

But Obama has concluded — somehow — that he must remain committed to his original policies, even when they prove to be failures, because abandoning them is a reflection on him.

After his party lost the Senate seat that had been held for so long by Ted Kennedy, Obama made noises about emphasizing jobs — but quickly returned to his obsession over health care. Unemployment was seldom mentioned until Obama announced his candidacy for re–election last spring.

Obama reminded me then — and still reminds me today — of Charles Emerson Winchester, the smug narcissistic surgeon from the M*A*S*H TV series who once injected a patient with curare, mistaking it for a sedative, and his colleagues rushed in to save the day.

While the other doctors fought to revive the patient, Charles could only think of how it affected him. "Do you think I want this boy to die?" he asked at one point. "It would be the worst thing that ever happened to me."

Many of Obama's supporters will point out that employment has been dropping (albeit slowly) in recent months. But I caution everyone to wait a couple of months and see if this pattern continues. My thinking is that most, if not all, of the recent hiring was due to the Christmas shopping season — which many retailers, eager to erase the memories of recent lackluster Christmas seasons, began promoting in October, if not September.

There is little demand for department store Santas or additional delivery help in January or February, and my expectation is that unemployment will begin to move up again — or, at best, remain where it is.

But even if it remains where it is, that is about where it was when Obama took office — and that was already higher than Obama said it would ever be under his economic policies when he was running for president the first time.

The economy had turned sour less than a year before Obama was elected, and many people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he took office.

But it's more than three years later now, and those who have been without full–time work throughout the Obama presidency are running out of patience. They ran out of unemployment benefits long ago.

Before 2012 is over, Americans will be forced to ask themselves Ronald Reagan's famous question from his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

That's what will ultimately decide this year's election — no matter how much the Democrats may insist that the previous administration was to blame for the bad economy or ridicule this year's crop of GOP candidates.

The voters passed judgment on the origin of the wretched economy four years ago. Obama was chosen to deal with it.

Obama was given four years to prove himself. It's the same amount of time that every president has been given, no more, no less.

At the end of the four years, the voters may be asked to renew the president's contract. They aren't always asked to do so. Sometimes the incumbent is prevented from seeking another term because he has already served two. Occasionally, the incumbent has not sought another term.

This incumbent announced his intention to seek a second term nearly a year ago.

The election in November will be about how well he has dealt with the economy he inherited but for which he has hesitated to take responsibility.

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