Signs are abundant that the American economy is finally heating up—the hypercharged stock market, the robust growth in housing prices, a steady decrease in the jobless rate—but, so far, instead of champagne, the White House keeps bringing buckets of cold water to the party.
The administration isn't ready to start celebrating openly yet—and its reluctance has to do with a real fear of getting burned.
Internally at the White House, the recent torrent of good news has sparked a discussion about when and how President Obama should start revising his economic narrative to make it clearer to the American public not only that it's safe to start exhaling a bit, but also that it was his administration's policies that made it so. In other words, when does this president get to claim a little credit and start doing some serious legacy-building?
As the administration turned to 2014 business, there was no Wolf of Wall Street chest-thumping over the good economic news, no sense that a turning point had been reached. "We could be an administration that just comes in here and tells you nothing but the good news," Gene Sperling, Obama's outgoing chief economic adviser, told reporters this week, as he discussed those whom the recovery has "left behind." Later in the week, the president himself convened an event at the White House designed to showcase Americans who are still "struggling."
No one wants to see a mended economy more than this White House, which has been drowned in muck since the moment Obama took office. Without that as the main focus of his presidency—and GOP opposition—the environment could improve for more-assertive climate-change policies, as well as for immigration reform, aides say. Both are tougher sells when the public believes times are hard. Obama could also finally see movement on long-sought agenda items involving transportation, infrastructure, and pre-K education, says former Obama administration economist Jared Bernstein.
And then there are the potential political gains. A revived economy could boost Democrats in the 2014 midterms, provided the numbers improve quickly enough. It could also lift the fortunes of the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, whether it's Hillary Clinton or someone else—much as George H.W. Bush benefited in 1988 from a strong economy and Al Gore nearly did in 2000. Moreover, says Jeremy Bird, a former Obama campaign strategist, the GOP, deprived of its top talking point, would have to develop a new message. "That changes the entire dynamic of the 2016 race," says Bird, whose consulting firm has been retained by a pro-Clinton super PAC.
So why the Debbie Downer act? "This is an economy that's done a lot of head fakes," Bernstein says. Back in 2009, the administration was derided for suggesting that "green shoots" of a comeback could be seen sprouting. More recently, in the context of the 2012 campaign, the White House had to wrestle with how aggressively to declare the country repaired. At times, the plodding economic numbers didn't align with the rhetoric. "The caution is warranted," Bernstein says.
That's particularly true since simply setting the clock back to 2006 isn't good enough. Obama, aides say, is in a box partly of his own making. The president has been beating the drum on issues such as income inequality and the eroding middle class since before the downturn. That means his benchmarks for success are harder to reach.
Clearly, though, the White House has some work to do when it comes to convincing Americans they should view Obama as the recovery's architect: An ABC News/Washington Post poll last month found that a majority of Americans (55 percent) disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, even as that same poll showed an increasing number (59 percent) are personally feeling the effects of the recovery—and even as half still blame George W. Bush for the recession. While the president's concern about the recovery not trickling down to everyone is justified, it appears that those whose fortunes are improving aren't giving him the credit. (Granted, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to concede Obama anything on this score.)
The White House also knows that if it wants to build consumer confidence, Americans need to hear the good news, too. And Obama does tell that story: He prefaces almost every speech he makes with a stream of recovery stats. But it's never the central point. And it doesn't counteract, or even really contradict, messages like the one Mitch McConnell repeated this week when he ambled to the Senate floor to talk about the same people the president admits are struggling, for the purpose of highlighting what his office called "five years of failed Obama economic policies."
That tension in the president's message—between pragmatism about the slow, not necessarily linear march to recovery and optimism about renewed prosperity—will likely emerge full flower this month in Obama's State of the Union address, when he'll be under pressure to reassure the nation about its health. Before then, Obama is expected to unveil a series of small-bore initiatives, all of which will remind the public that the president remains in fix-it mode when it comes to the economy.
Bird lauds Obama for not declaring victory too soon. "There's a lot of integrity in that," he says, adding that the president's leadership "has been about the long game." That indeed may be to his credit, but the problem with playing the long game is that you end up relying on history to vindicate your approach. The White House may want to think about speeding up that process a bit. After all, people love a good redemption story.
This article appears in the January 11, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Grappling With the Good.