Something weird happens when presidencies go wrong — presidents become incompetent at doing the things they were always able to do in their sleep, and their aides follow suit. I noted this when I wrote my first book, Hell of a Ride, about the decline and fall of the first President Bush, back in 1993. When Bush spoke, it rained, and his advancemen weren’t quick-thinking enough to move his events indoors. When he went to Japan on a state visit, he vomited. He was so intent on getting out his message of the day that he referred to it as “Message: I Care.”
Obama is heading in that direction right now. It’s hard to imagine what could have possessed him to take to the microphones this morning to claim that the unemployment numbers released this morning were “positive news” and that the “economy is moving in a positive direction” when the unemployment rate rose a tenth of a point.
Now, by definition, the economy is moving in a positive direction because it is not shrinking in size. And I know that analysts are saying that the increase in the unemployment number is due to people attempting to rejoin the workforce, not from people being fired, and that there are glimmers of encouragement in the hard data on the August numbers. Nor should presidents “talk down” the economy, as I’m sure his aides warn him. And he did say the news was “not good enough.”
But the news is worse than “not good enough” — otherwise, he wouldn’t simultaneously be hinting at dramatic new plans for hundreds of billions in new spending that he has no chance of getting through Congress right now and that can’t be spent in time for the election either. But if the only claim he and his team can make about the $800 billion stimulus is that it prevented even worse employment numbers (and even then, only by shoring up the public sector), he is going to have trouble convincing anyone who isn’t already all in with him that the United States needs to pile on even more unprecedented debt.
The notion that proposing more government action will be a political winner for him now — to say nothing of whether it would be economically and fiscally wise — needs to be considered in conjunction with his foolish rhetoric this morning. He is moving into the permanently-out-of-touch territory in which the Elder Bush found himself mired throughout his final year in office. When this president next week begins proposing expensive new measures to save us from a crisis he has just told us we are emerging from, he is going to compound the growing sense that he has no idea what he is doing or where to go to fix the mess. And he is going to convince many more people that the mess in which we are now mired is of a different order from the mess he inherited, and that it belongs to him and his party, and that somebody else is going to have to clean it up.