Why Obama Is Afraid to Tout the Recovery

The White House doesn’t want to herald the turnaround only to see the economy sputter out.

On ice: No celebrating yet.
National Journal
James Oliphant
See more stories about...
James Oliphant
Jan. 10, 2014, midnight

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.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Leads Tightly Packed Group Vying for Second
11 hours ago

In one of the last surveys before New Hampshirites actually vote, a Monmouth poll has Donald Trump with a big edge on the Republican field. His 30% leads a cluster of rivals in the low-to-mid teens, including John Kasich (14%), Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio (13% each) and Ted Cruz (12%). On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 52%-42%.

GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
9 hours ago

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Bill Goes on the Offensive Against Bernie
9 hours ago

“Bill Clinton uncorked an extended attack on … Bernie Sanders on Sunday, harshly criticizing” the senator “and his supporters for what he described as inaccurate and ‘sexist’ attacks on Hillary Clinton. ‘When you’re making a revolution you can’t be too careful with the facts,’ … Clinton said. … The former president … portrayed his wife’s opponent … as hypocritical, ‘hermetically sealed’ and dishonest.”

Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
4 hours ago

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”