Presidents Shape Their Circumstances


Brendan Nyhan says that backseat drivers need to recognize that Barack Obama is largely a prisoner of circumstances:

What few will point out, however, is that the Obama administration (like every White House) is largely a prisoner of circumstance — the combination of lingering economic weakness and an upcoming midterm election would hurt any president. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel certainly didn’t become any less skillful in the last few months; Obama is just playing a weaker hand than he was during the campaign and subsequent honeymoon period. As such, it’s hard to know how much of the decline in the standing of Obama and the Democrats is the result of the choices the White House has made.

I largely agree with that, but the state of the economy isn’t just “circumstances,” in part it’s a result of the Obama administration’s policies. In particular, they chose to take what they could get on stimulus and then move on to other elements of the agenda—notably health care. People in the future will look back and, with some reason, debate whether it would have made more sense to stay focused on the short-term economic picture especially when the condition of the economy turned out to be so much worse than forecast when the Recovery Act was initially outlined.