Obama’s three big mistakes: the debate between Frum and Bernstein

Journalist Jonathan Alter challenged his liberal readers to do the following:

“Tell me again why Barack Obama has been such a bad president? I’m not talking here about him as a tactician and communicator. We can agree that he has played some bad poker with Congress. … (But) what, specifically, has he done wrong on policy?”

Among those who took the bait, David Frum’s effort is the best. So here are:

(1)  David Frum’s original piece: “Obama’s Three Big Mistakes,”

(2)  Jared Bernstein’s response: “The Stimulus Worked,” and

(3)  Frum’s rebuttal: “A Reply to the President’s Defenders

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About Guy N. Texas

Guy N. Texas is the pen name of a lawyer living in Dallas, who is now a liberal. He was once conservative, but this word has so morphed in meaning that he can no longer call himself that in good conscience. Guy has no political aspirations. He speaks only for himself.
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3 Responses to Obama’s three big mistakes: the debate between Frum and Bernstein

  1. hortonw says:

    If that’s the worst you can say about a President then you can’t claim he’s “such a bad president.” One of those three things is just saying the President was overly optimistic, which they all are. One of those concerns the Fed, which is only partly on his account. The third — the stimulus — is really a matter of degree and tweaking on the margins.

  2. Guy N. Texas says:

    I’d agree Obama is not “such a bad president..” It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing the president we have to the president we hoped we were voting for. That’s unfair. And it’s not the relevant comparison going into 2012. The relevant comparison is, of course, between Obama and the Republican candidate, whoever it will be.

    That said, and Frum’s “Monday morning quarterbacking” aside, it’s now clear that (i) the stimulus was poorly designed, (ii) the President has put little if any pressure on the Fed (and has failed even to fill the open slots on the Federal Reserve Board), (iii) he has been remarkably passive on the jobs front adopting instead the rhetoric of deficit reduction, allowing the Republicans to change the subject, (iv) he was willing to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 as part of his $4 trillion debt-ceiling “grand bargain,” despite all the evidence that that’s an awful idea from almost every policy angle, and (v) he has demonstrated repeatedly that, if the Republicans will simply obstruct, he’ll back down. Rather than creating “new politics” in Washington, he’s simply losing at the “old politics.”

    You’re right that it’s no character flaw to be overly optimistic, but given the advice he was getting at the time from his leading economists (Larry Summers, Christy Romer) and from a certain Nobel prize-winning economist who was advising him from the pages of the Times (Krugman) — it’s fair to call his optimism an unforced error. The evidence that this was no ordinary recession but something far more challenging was in.

    I recognize that Republican obstructionism — which often makes it seem that the GOP would rather see the country destroyed than Obama reelected — is not only real, but intense. So maybe his policies would not have been significantly better even if Obama had done all that Frum suggests. But he’d be in a much better place politically if he had. He’d be able to make his case in the next election campaign, which would set things up so that his reelection would provide the mandate to do what’s needed in 2013. Perhaps we’ll see that next week when the President addresses Congress. I hope so. And I hope it’s not too late.

  3. hortonw says:

    I don’t think we are really disagreeing. As you note, whether Obama has been “such a bad President” or even a “bad President” depends a lot on your frame of reference. One could make a serious case that of the last 8 Presidents (Nixon,Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama) Obama is easily in the top half. His Supreme Court appointments have been responsible. His approach to Libya was just about right. He has been scandal-free. He has brought a seriousness to policy discussion. He has improved America’s standing and reputation in the world. He got Bin Laden and, knock on wood, Al Qaeda has not gotten us back. Remember when Republicans took credit for keeping the country safe? Doesn’t count when a Democract does the same.

    I grant you that he should have tried to do more on the stimulus. But there is big gap between that and being a bad President, and I doubt either of us feels comfortable trying to bridge that gap. How much more could he have done? I recall the $700B figure being a tough pill for many to swallow. How much difference would an incrementally larger stimulus have made? Some difference, to be sure. But, perhaps even the largest politically obtainable stimulus would not have made a huge difference.

    The lesson is a simple one. Almost every organism knows this lesson. Save when times are good, spend when times are bad. Squirrels know to collect acorns in the Fall. Camels fill up when they have water. Bush, alas, was dumber than that. We had some good times — as we always do — and rather than invest it or save it, he gave it back. Well, that left us out of nuts when the economic winter hit.

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