It didn’t take long for President Obama to realize that he had misjudged the effectiveness of his plan to get the economy on track. In 2011 the New York Times Magazine reported that while Obama was proud of his record, he had “already begun thinking about what went wrong – and what he needs to do to change course.”
He had two main criticisms. First, he allowed himself to look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat,” a figure he spent much of the campaign promising not to become. And second, he realized too late that “there’ no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”
The expectations game has always been a problem for Barack Obama. Simply put, he clearly doesn’t buy into the idea that an executive should “underpromise and overdeliver.” After all, since his time in Washington the president promised that he would create five million new energy jobs, that his health care overhaul would “bring down premiums by $2,500 for the typical family,” that his mortgage assistance would help “stop foreclosures,” that his stimulus plan would keep unemployment rates below 8 percent and “jolt our economy back to life,” that he would “cut the deficit we inherited in half,” and that his plans would “lift two million Americans from poverty.”
Now, five years after his initial “oops” moment, President Obama is back with another regret: Not giving Americans a proper sense for how difficult the recovery was going to be. In a town hall in Jamaica, a young chef asked the president what one piece of advice he would go back and give himself before the start of his 2008 term.
“What I would have probably advised was that I might have needed to warn the American people and paint a picture for them that was more accurate about the fact that it would take some time to dig ourselves out of a very big hole,” Obama responded.
“With us, we came in just as people were really starting to feel the impacts. And trying to paint a picture that we’ll make it but it’s going to take some time, and here are the steps that we need to take – I think I would have advised myself to do a better job spending more time not just getting the policy right, but also describing it in ways that people understood, that gave them confidence in their own future.” Unfortunately, it seems, politics got in the way of telling Americans the truth. Does the stimulus bill get passed if the White House admits that the unemployment rate is going to hit 10 percent anyways? Does Obama get reelected if he can’t promise that the recovery is right around the corner?
Maybe, maybe not, but there seems little doubt that the president benefited from his own sanguinity. Somehow he has been able to pull off the seemingly impossible – touting an improving economy as a massive policy victory when things seems to be headed in the right direction, and to ask for patience when the economy inevitably trends back downwards.
That duality has been especially apparent recently. On March 26 Obama reeled off a string of economic accomplishments and argued that the “progress is no accident,” but was instead “the result of decisions made by my administration.” Less than two weeks later in a speech on solar energy the president reminded Americans that “we’re impacted by what happens around the world,” before mentioning that “Europe has had a weaker economy” and “Asia has been slowing down.”
It should come as little surprise that the shift in rhetoric came after a slew of negative economic indicators were hinting at economic turbulence and the jobs report showed a marked slowdown in job growth. The string of bad news and poor trends are leading some to reevaluate the actual strength of our recovery.
“If the workforce participate rate today were as high as it was one the day Barack Obama was inaugurated, the unemployment rate in this country would be 9.7 percent. We wouldn’t be complaining about the bad recovery because we wouldn’t call it a recovery.”
If President Obama’s chief regret is truly not bracing Americans for the troubling economic times ahead, then there is no better time than now to begin. Because sadly this sluggish recovery or “new normal,” whatever you want to call it, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.