The Spectacle Blog

Obama As Martyr for Good Stimulus Design

By on 10.22.10 | 11:35AM

Is there a better word than pathetic to describe President Obama's attempts to portray himself as an economic savior tragically unappreciated by an undeserving public? He's blamed his increasing unpopularity on a "perverse" desire to implement good policies instead of pandering to voters. And his mindless followers have provided the details to support this narrative -- for instance, the incredibly overstated point that the Obama stimulus included tax cuts by decreasing paycheck withholding, instead of by sending checks that taxpayers would get in the mail. The idea was that people would be more inclined to spend money they didn't recognize was new, and that they would be more likely to save money that came as a check. 

Today the very astute and reliable Howard Gleckman buys into this talking point a little. Regarding the stimulus tax cuts, he writes: 

Congressional Democrats may be about to pay a fearsome price for Obama's decision to follow economic conventional wisdom. I'll leave it to future historians to tell us whether the great unseen tax cut was an exercise in economic courage, dumb politics, or both. 

It's discouraging to see this sentiment repeated by a knowledgeable observer, when it's clearly not the case that the "unseen tax cut" was bad politics. 

If Obama and his advisers truly thought that the best way to improve the economy was to cut taxes in a subtle way, then doing so was in their best political interests. The overwhelming political problem Obama faces right now is the state of the economy. Improving the economy is far more important to his political wellbeing than any visible payout to taxpayers could be. That being stated, the early evidence suggests that the stimulus tax cuts were poorly designed, and that we would have been better off if they had been sent out as checks. 

Meanwhile, it's just wrong to suggest that sending the tax cuts as checks would have helped Obama and the Democrats politically. How do we know? Because we have an example of someone doing precisely that: George W. Bush, in early 2008. The now-forgotten Stimulus Act of 2008 included tax cuts comparable to those in the Obama stimulus, sent out directly as checks. Guess what those checks did for Bush's popularity? Not much: he left office shortly thereafter with nearly the lowest approval rating of any president in history. 

The state of the economy is far, far more important than political messaging in determining the popularity of the president. If Obama's policies were anywhere near as brilliant and well-designed as he constantly claims they are, there would be no need to complain about the public's lack of understanding. 

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