There has been nothing but bad news lately for Barack Obama. The economic picture darkens almost daily as the recovery has slowed to a halt with little growth and high unemployment. His personal approval numbers are terrible, making his re-election uncertain at best. But this week he did get one break. Republican purists who have blocked passage of a debt ceiling increase may have given Obama the one thing he needed most this summer: a new scapegoat for the economy.
For two and a half years, Obama has been blaming George W. Bush for America’s economic straits. It was a reasonable, if unfair, position to hold for about a year. But after the passage of his billion dollar stimulus boondoggle and then the adoption of his cherished national health care plan, there was no denying that Obama “owned” the economy. The vast expansion of the debt and of entitlement spending on Obama’s watch is unprecedented, and it was the cause of the massive electoral backlash that put the Republicans back in control of the House of Representatives last fall. But by allowing their caucus to be saddled with the blame for the failure to deal with the summer’s debt crisis, the GOP may have given the president a new narrative with which he will attempt to explain the disastrous economy he has presided over. Though it will be the rankest piece of historical revisionism heard in years, it may be that in the coming weeks and months, the story coming out of the White House will be one in which it was the House Republicans who destroyed America’s economy in the summer of 2011.
In this telling, the horrible economic picture that confronted the country at the beginning of the summer never existed. Instead, all the country’s troubles–including the lack of growth and the high unemployment–will be put down to the debt crisis. That was itself largely the result of Obama’s scaremongering on the issue throughout the course of the failed negotiations he presided over. During this period, the president appeared more interested in causing a government shutdown rather than preventing one, provided he could pose as the adult who couldn’t control the irresponsible Republican adolescents. Yet, he may well go to the people next year claiming everything about the bad economy he helped create is the fault of a GOP that stood its ground on cutting spending and refusing to raise taxes.
Will this ploy work? Hopefully, the memory of the voters will be good enough that most will recall the economy was already in the ditch before the debt ceiling debate. But the intense attention given the events of the past week lends credence to the notion that what happens now will influence the public’s perception of reality.
The Republicans needed to act to restrain Obama’s tax and spend instincts without getting the country close to a default or a shutdown. So far, they have failed to do so. There may still be enough time for House Speaker John Boehner to rally his troops and avert the disaster Obama has been luring them into all along. If they don’t wake up soon, they may spend the next year and a half hearing about how they wrecked the economy Obama had already ruined.