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
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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.

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