[Posted by Karl]
With a ridiculous cover headline — “Why Are Obama’s Critics So Dumb?” — I get why Ann Althouse (or anyone, really) would not want to bother with the latest from Andrew Sullivan, although he is likely not responsible for that headline. The article is not an ad hominem attack of Obama’s critics, but a centralized compilation of his various apologies for the President. Insofar as his defenses parallel the likely narrative of Obama’s reelect campaign, it’s worth looking at his takes on criticism of Obama from the right (Sullivan also addresses criticism from the left, which won’t play much role in the campaign) on major issues:
Jobs. Sullivan begins — as Team Obama almost certainly will — with Obama inheriting a terrible economy, writing that “[n]o fair person can blame Obama for the wreckage of the [first] 12 months, as the financial crisis cut a swath through employment.” Yet shortly thereafter, he writes:
Since [the beginning of 2010], the U.S. has added 2.4 million jobs. That’s not enough, but it’s far better than what Romney would have you believe, and more than the net jobs created under the entire Bush administration.
Sullivan is comparing Obama’s gross job creation to Bush’s net job creation, ignoring that Bush also inherited a recession resulting from the collapse of the tech bubble. By Sullivan’s own standard, this is unfair.
By the standard of net jobs created, Obama remains underwater and will be lucky to get to zero net jobs created by the end of his term. Conversely, if we simply judge Obama by the recovery, the results are terrible when compared to past recoveries. Nearly a million people have dropped out of the labor force, dropping the participation rate to an historic low, implying an unemployment rate close to 11%, instead of the official 8.5%.
Stimulus. Sullivan’s faulty frame on jobs is necessary to his defense of Obama’s economic stimulus law:
The job collapse bottomed out at the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect. ***
The right claims the stimulus failed because it didn’t bring unemployment down to 8 percent in its first year, as predicted by Obama’s transition economic team. Instead, it peaked at 10.2 percent. But the 8 percent prediction was made before Obama took office and was wrong solely because it relied on statistics that guessed the economy was only shrinking by around 4 percent, not 9. Remove that statistical miscalculation (made by government and private-sector economists alike) and the stimulus did exactly what it was supposed to do. It put a bottom under the free fall. It is not an exaggeration to say it prevented a spiral downward that could have led to the Second Great Depression.
The argument here is that the people who completely misjudged the state of the economy in late 2008 nevertheless got the right solution, which worked in the predicted magnitude. Peter Suderman has schooled Sullivan on the “garbage-in, garbage out” quality of his argument — and Sullivan has recognized it as a valid point, but apparently it’s invalid in an election year.
For the more visually oriented, take a look the now-familiar graph comparing the Romer-Bernstein prediction of unemployment with and without passing the stimulus, and the actual unemployment figures. Sullivan concedes the Obama team’s error of magnitude, so notice two other features of the graph. First, note that Team Obama predicted that passing the stimulus would start bringing down unemployment almost immediately. Second, compare the curves of the various lines. The actual results look much more like the curve of the line traced by the “without stimulus” prediction than the “with stimulus” prediction line. The sloping decline starting in late 2009 predicted by Romer and Bernstein simply isn’t to be seen in the actual results.
Finally, as Megan McArdle — a stimulus backer — has noted, the stimulus law did not stave off another Great Depression. If you want to credit a government program for that, TARP would be the candidate. If you want to credit quasi-governmental action, try the Fed’s quantitative easing.
Taxes. Sullivan writes:
You’d think, listening to the Republican debates, that Obama has raised taxes. Again, this is not true. Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition.
Obama’s signature healthcare law raises $813 billion from 2012 to 2021. Almost half of the “stimulus tax cuts” were actually spending. The House GOP voted for a year-long extension of the payroll tax cut, while Obama demanded an unworkable short-term cut to be offset by… a tax increase.
And it’s not like Obama is averse to raising taxes. He scotched a debt ceiling deal because the GOP offer of $800 billion more in revenue was just not enough for him. Obama also pushed a cap-and-tax system for carbon emissions that would have cost the average household in the bottom-income quintile about 3.3% of its after-tax income every year. So when Sullivan talks about Obama not raising taxes, that is in large part because his plans were too extreme for Congress, even when both houses were controlled by Democrats.
Spending. Sullivan argues “[y]ou could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor,” claiming:
Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms.
These numbers are taken from a tendentious graphic published by the New York Times, based in part on data from the lefty Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. There are other ways to look at the data, but in Sullivan’s accounting, Bush gets charged with his tax cuts, but Obama does not, even though — as Sullivan notes — Obama supported renewing them. Obama does not get charged with the Afghan war, although he backed it and even launched a “surge” there. Obama does not get charged with TARP, although he voted for it as a Senator and expanded it as president. He does not get charged with the Medicare drug benefit, although he has not proposed its repeal and is in fact increasing its cost under Obamacare. And while we’re on the subject…
Obamacare. Sullivan writes:
The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. ***
Yes, it crosses the Rubicon of universal access to private health care. But since federal law mandates that hospitals accept all emergency-room cases requiring treatment anyway, we already obey that socialist principle—but in the most inefficient way possible. Making 44 million current free-riders pay into the system is not fiscally reckless; it is fiscally prudent. It is, dare I say it, conservative.
Obamacare is “moderate” in the sense that it is one percent from a complete government takeover of the health insurance system. Democrats gamed the CBO to get a deficit-reducing score. The CBO’s alternative baseline — the one most consider the more realistic baseline — does not think the savings will materialize. And it’s funny Sullivan should mention the federal mandate on emergency-room care, as it is a driver of the so-called free rider problem, which is largely mythical.
Foreign policy. Sullivan focuses on the least controversial aspect of Obama’s record, claiming “Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death.” In reality, the key info to finding bin Laden was gathered from Operation Cannonball, launched during the Bush administration. Sullivan also claims:
[W]here Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.
Confidence in al Qaeda was declining for years in the Muslim world before Obama took office. Then again, confidence in Obama has declined in the Muslim world from 2009-11 (the most recent Pew Global attitudes poll). The latter was one of Sullivan’s arguments for electing Obama in the first place. Sullivan also argued that Obama could reduce the polarization in Washington. Obama started poisoning that well three days into his presidency, becoming one of the most polarizing presidents in modern history.
In short, Obama’s critics on the right are not “dumb” as Newsweek would have it. Nor are they “empirically wrong” as Sullivan would have it. Sullivan tips over into the increasingly familiar tactic of pretending political debates are simply resolved questions of fact. Given Obama’s lousy numbers on most issues entering this election year, he will need better arguments and a better economy to play the “long game” Sullivan thinks is being played.