The President and the Economy: Lowering the Performance Bar

(Article first published as The President and the Economy: Lowering the Performance Bar on Blogcritics.) Fifty percent of the respondents in an AP-GfK poll taken last month believe that the President has little to no effect on the American economy. The poll consisted of telephone and cell phone interviews with 1,007 adults across the country.

While GfK markets its polling methodology as reliable, it is not described as drawing from a representative cross section of the nation. So, it’s uncertain whether the belief in the President’s irrelevancy to the economy is shared by fifty percent of the electorate. If it is, Obama has lowered the performance bar so much that half of the voters believe the person in the Oval Office doesn’t matter.

These poll respondents are wrong, of course, but they hardly can be blamed for their mistaken belief. It’s similar to the Stockholm syndrome where some kidnap victims who are held long enough begin to identify with their captors. We’ve been captive to incompetence for so long, it has begun to define our expectations. That’s a scary concession to performance failure.

Those who believe in the President’s negligible impact on the economy give three reasons in addition to “I don’t know why”. Some respondents view congressional intransigence as an insurmountable obstacle to presidential action. However, that is only true under limited circumstances.

In Obama’s case, his party controlled Congress for his first two years in office giving him free rein to realize his economic agenda. The result was a parade of ineffective mortgage relief programs and a stimulus package that allowed the unemployment rate to soar above 10%. One year after its signing, three million fewer people were employed than when the ink dried.

Naked ineptitude prevented the stimulus from being the boon that Obama promised it would be. To begin with, the economy was in much worse shape than the Administration’s naïve 2009 predictions. The stimulus, once enacted, was not directed at businesses. The bulk of the spending was merely a wealth transfer to state governments, many of which have been financially mismanaged for years. Worse than subsidizing people who can’t balance a budget, the least needy states received the most money.

Meanwhile, Obama wasted credibility capital preaching that the stimulus would fund “shovel-ready” jobs only to confess later that, to his surprise, those jobs don’t exist. As for excuses, even Barney Frank winces at the President’s fantastical failed-stimulus mantra – things could have been worse without me.

After the 2010 election, Obama had the same opportunity as Bill Clinton in 1994 to be the conciliator with Congress, the adult in the room. Presidents are uniquely positioned to turn partisan discord into a productive, if bumpy, relationship. Obama would have had an easier time of it, too, since the terminally self-important Newt Gingrich wasn’t around to challenge him at every turn. And he did admit on the eve of the election that he should have included Republicans in the stimulus negotiations.

Yet, when the time came to inspire unity, Obama chose, instead, to pour rancor over the political divide like gasoline on a fire. Rather than following Clinton’s example, he squandered his leadership moment for a bowl of partisan porridge and we are weaker for it.

Other poll respondents chalk up the President’s inadequacy to world events, which today are blowing ill economic winds onto our shores. Of course Obama cannot control developments in Europe, for example. But, he can help prepare our economy to withstand negative repercussions emanating from across the Atlantic.

This requires the President to encourage economic growth rather than discourage it. A strong economy is the best buffer we have against outside forces. However, rather than strengthen, Obama’s economic agenda stifles free enterprise because it is not about economics at all. It’s about incrementally replacing a free market system with one infused with government control. He’s using a weakened economy as an excuse to push his agenda much like he used a flawed healthcare system to give us Obamacare.

The President’s bureaucrats have issued hundreds of new regulations at a cost of over $46 billion to Americans, far surpassing his predecessor on both counts. He has created a climate of uncertainty with constant threats of tax increases and ever more regulations. Advertized as high-profile investment, Obama funnels political payoffs to company owners in special interest sectors only to see the companies fail and employees jobless. Rather than fostering a positive growth environment, he undermines it with politics. The outcome is an even weaker economy.

Still, Obama’s shortcomings are his own. The failure, spectacular though it may be, of a single incompetent individual does not define the boundaries of the office he holds. Admittedly, that’s hard to remember when the occupant has had so many swings and misses. But, Obama remembers. Voters should take their cue from his prediction that he will be a one-term president for failing to turn the economy around.

Some of the poll respondents attribute their belief in presidential impotence to the death of optimism during Obama’s term. Defeatism is understandable after his failure to live up to the promises that swept him into the White House. But, the demise of hopefulness after just four years of disappointment and hardship is a premature death. It concedes too soon that inadequacy has become the standard of presidential performance.

To be sure hard times are difficult or they would be called something else. But, pessimism is easily averted by the knowledge that voters can improve their economic circumstances. Presidents who do not perform adequately only remain in office because voters allow them to remain.

In that regard, even those who believe that the President is a bystander to economic forces do not necessarily let him off the hook. As one respondent said, she is willing to give Romney a chance to see what he can do. That attitude is reflected in a more recent AP-GfK poll that shows Obama losing his long-held advantage over Romney as economic uncertainties increase.

Today, Obama’s response to his fumbling of the economy is to change the subject with a vengeance, attacking Romney with increasingly absurd accusations. The President and his staffers have assailed Romney’s religion, his wife, his business record, his patriotism and his wealth. This past week, they claimed he is also either a felon or a liar.

Obama is a Chicago politician, a street brawler whose favorite diversionary weapon is relentless character assassination. He’s also quick to spout a spate of promises, a la 2008, that he can’t keep. Romney responds poorly in a campaign thusly defined because he has no experience in that type of environment. His successes, unlike the President’s, are built on substantive achievements not empty politics. Viewed in that light, Romney’s stumbling retorts to Obama’s escalating personal attacks are actually a point in the challenger’s favor.

One thing is certain. When people begin to accept ineptitude as the nation’s new normal, it’s time to change the occupant of the White House.

See you in the mirror.