The White House political team loves comparing Barack Obama to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, predecessors who easily won second terms despite early stumbles in their first ones. But the economic and fiscal pincers which constrain Obama are much tighter. None of the president’s proposals in Wednesday’s State of the Union speech can do much to free him.
Obama said high unemployment would be his number one focus this year. No wonder, as it is the issue of most concern to voters, and the biggest reason their support for the president and Congress is falling.
The president made some proposals — money for small business lending and a tax credit for hiring — which may help at the margins. But the new initiatives would probably cost around $100 billion, a fraction of the $300 billion or so in stimulus spending so far, which has not prevented the unemployment rate from climbing to 10.0 percent currently from 7.7 percent at the start of 2009. Good luck finding an economist — even inside the Obama administration — who has great expectations from the proposed new spending.
On unemployment Obama is falling behind his comeback predecessors. As it is, the Congressional Budget Office predicts unemployment will remain close to 10 percent heading into 2011, a forecast echoed by many private economists. By contrast, the first full year of the Reagan recovery in 1983 saw unemployment fall by 2.5 percentage points, while Clinton inherited a growing economy and a falling jobless rate.
And don’t forget the moribund housing market. A new piece of analysis from Goldman Sachs concludes that “recoveries from post-bust recessions tend to be more sluggish than normal and substantial excess capacity generally remains for some time.”
Looking at the political damage caused be high joblessness, Obama would no doubt have preferred to announce something bolder. The liberal Economic Policy Institute has a $400 billion plan that takes in everything from tax credits to government make-work positions. (And major cuts in investment and corporate taxes are out of the question with this administration.)
But that price tag doesn’t go with the double-digit deficit, which spooks financial markets and independent voters. Obama nodded in their direction with a proposed idea-seeking commission and a very limited three-year spending freeze. While not exactly a frugal Hooverite response, it’s not exactly New Deal II, either.
In the end, it was a limited agenda outlined by a constrained president — constrained by the loss of a Senate supermajority, constrained by the Scott Brown win in Massachusetts, constrained by his own falling popularity and constrained by investors whom he fears are reaching their debtload tolerance.
So not a reboot but a slow retreat. The reboot may come next January if the sour economy costs Democrats their dominance of Congress. I didn’t even think Obama’s heart was really in the no obligatory bit of Wall Street bashing. There was also an interesting moment in the televised Frank Luntz focus group after the speech. Those folks hated when Obama talked about the economy having turned the corner. They think the recession continues.
So forget Reagan and Clinton. Given Obama’s economic challenges, one-term Jimmy Carter might be the better historical comparison.