Commentary Magazine


The Humbling of an American President

My, how the mighty have fallen.

In a speech in Wisconsin yesterday, President Obama, promoting the “merits” of his stimulus bill, said this:

Now, every economist who’s looked at it said that the Recovery [Act] did its job. … The problem is, number one, it’s hard to argue sometimes, “Things would have been a lot worse.” Right? So people kind of say, “Yeah, but unemployment’s still at 9.6 percent.” Yes, but it’s not 12 or 13 or 15. People say, “Well, you know, the stock market didn’t fully recover.” Yeah, but it’s recovered more than people expected last year. So part of the challenge in delivering this message about all the Recovery Act accomplished is that things are still tough, they just aren’t as bad as they could have been. They could have been a catastrophe. In that sense [the stimulus] worked.

There is a lot to say in response, starting with the fact that some of these statements are flatly untrue. It is simply not correct that “every economist” who has looked at the stimulus bill says it did its job. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, for example — on the very day Obama claimed universal support among economists for his stimulus package — Allan Meltzer, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, began his op-ed this way: “The administration’ s stimulus program has failed.” There are even Keynesian economists, like Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs, who are critical of the Recovery Act [h/t: Ed Morrissey].

But the problem for Obama goes deeper than simply this false claim. The Obama administration itself said that if the Recovery Act passed, unemployment would not exceed 8 percent. In fact, unemployment has exceeded what the Obama administration said would happen were the stimulus bill not passed. President Obama is the one who set the standard — and he’s now rightfully being held to it.

Beyond even that, though, it is interesting to see how much reality has humbled this president. He came into office not only promising to create jobs, restore prosperity, open doors of opportunity, cut health-care costs, and reduce our “mounting debt” but also to end divisions in our politics, transcend partisanship, put an end to the blame game, provide unprecedented transparency, stop the rise of the oceans, and heal the planet. Those were his words, his claims, his commitments. And now he has been reduced to saying: “Things are still tough; they just aren’t as bad as they could have been.” His strongest case in his defense is that unemployment is almost 10 percent — but it’s not 12 or 13 or 15 percent.

Talk about defining success down.

It is a remarkable and, in some ways, poignant thing to witness. No candidate in our lifetime rode the wave of hope and change quite like Barack Obama did. His campaign was, at its core, less about ideas than about aesthetics, about a narrative, about capturing an American moment. “This is our moment. This is our time,” he would say again and again. He entered office with an enormous reservoir of good will — and with huge majorities in the House and Senate. So much seemed possible to his supporters. But bad policies, arrogance, and events have caused him to come crashing down to earth. The president’s popularity is sinking, the mood of the country is souring, and his party is heading for an epic mid-term election defeat. Obama looks inept and, at times, overwhelmed — at the mercy of events rather than in control of them. He doesn’t seem up to the challenge. He looks, in fact, very much like a community organizer who was thrust into the job of the presidency.

Back in February 2007, during his announcement speech — when hopes were so high and the sky seemed the limit — Barack Obama uttered words that would haunt him if he ever thought back on them:

I know there are those who don’t believe we can do all these things. I understand the skepticism. After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different. All of us running for president will travel around the country offering ten-point plans and making grand speeches; all of us will trumpet those qualities we believe make us uniquely qualified to lead the country. But too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own.

Today the election is over. The confetti has been swept away. The promises are fading from memory. And the people are turning away, too — more disappointed than before, once again left to struggle on their own.

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