Jonathan Alter: Remind me again why Obama's a bad president

This could be a winning campaign message for them. “Obama 2012: You only think I reek.”

Your mission, Jim (and readers named something else), should you decide to accept it, is to identify where Obama has been a poor decision-maker. What, specifically, has he done wrong on policy? What, specifically, would you have done differently to create jobs? And what can any of the current Republican candidates offer that would be an improvement on the employment front?…

From the right: “The stimulus and bailouts failed.”

When Obama took office, the economy was losing about 750,000 jobs a month and heading for another Great Depression. The recession ended (at least for a while) and we now are adding several thousand jobs a month — anemic growth, but an awful lot better than the alternative. How did that happen? Luck?…

From all sides: “He took his eye off jobs by pushing health care.”

Not really. Health care consumed enormous time and political capital in late 2009 and early 2010. But with the stimulus new and still being absorbed (with remarkably little scandal) into the American economy, it’s not as if health care distracted the president from another jobs program in that period. Sure, he should have rhetorically “pivoted to jobs” earlier, but substantively it wouldn’t have made much difference. And Republicans have offered no evidence for their claim that the Affordable Care Act (which includes tax credits for small businesses) has contributed to current levels of unemployment. How could it? The program hasn’t even fully begun yet.

There’s a grain of truth this in that some of O’s disintegrating polling really is due to things beyond his control. If the eurozone falls apart and the PIIGS turn toxic (well, more toxic), the economic shockwave felt here will push his numbers down further. That’s not his fault, but that’s what it means to be president — when you preside over endless economic despair, whatever the various causes of it, you’ll be held accountable. Rather than revisit the endless “did the stimulus help or didn’t it?” debate, though, how about this for something he might have done differently: Instead of jerking around with universal health-care to make his base happy, he could have held off on big-ticket, fantastically expensive new legislation until the country was in the middle of a significant, sustainable economic recovery. Irony of ironies, the guy who packaged himself in the campaign as a problem-solving pragmatist didn’t act that way when faced with the most intractable problem of all. He let Congress take the lead on passing a porky stimulus and then, before anyone had a sense of how that would turn out, he pulled out his agenda wishlist. A true pragmatist would have realized (a) that there was some risk the stimulus wouldn’t be enough and that he’d need to ask for a second, even more politically unpalatable round of spending, and (b) that enormous stimulative bursts of government outlays would accelerate the debt crisis that’s already on the horizon and speeding up. Instead, what’d he do? He pushed through a leviathan health-care bill on the surreal theory that it would bend the cost curve and reduce spending long-term, which no one to the right of Ezra Klein believed (and with good reason). In other words, in handling America’s two biggest challenges — economic recovery and mounting debt — he was sloppy and neglectful on the former and hideously complicit in the latter. How’s that for a successful presidency?

Imagine if he had come out in the summer of 2009, after the stimulus had passed, and announced that he intended to pursue universal health care — but not until unemployment had dropped below, say, 7.5 percent. No new sudden moves legislatively until job one, putting Americans back to work, had been taken care of. That would have bought him time with his base and endeared him to independents. Then, in preparation for taking up ObamaCare down the line, he could have declared that he wanted to work on bipartisan long-term deficit reduction to put the country back on a stronger fiscal footing. The obvious way to do that? Entitlement reform, of course — something he promised he’d take up as president. The left wouldn’t have liked that, but O’s vow that universal health care would move to the top of the agenda once the economy had recovered would have blunted the backlash. And since Democrats controlled both houses of Congress at the time, they could have engineered an entitlement deal more to their liking than they’d get now. If they pulled it off and got something done with centrist Republicans, Obama would have earned some “fiscal responsibility” capital which he could then burn on either another stimulus as the economy stalled or as an argument to trust him on ObamaCare’s cost-saving measures. But that would have required convincing the left that a debt crisis is a real possibility and that the only way out of it is repairing Medicare and Social Security pronto, and that’s waaaaay too much reality for the “reality-based community.” So instead O gave up and … embraced an even bigger expansion of our already dangerously bloated government. In the immortal words of the man himself : Solid B+.

Exit question: I think my favorite line from Alter’s piece is, “The recession ended (at least for a while)”. How’s that for a 2012 campaign slogan instead?