It’s The Economy, Stupid

Peter Baker’s Week in Review piece trying to add some texture to the story of Bill Clinton’s post-1994 political moves is pretty good, but like most such narratives I think it slights the central role of macroeconomic performance:

Mr. Clinton’s lowest postelection moment arguably came less than 24 hours before he began his comeback. In April 1995, he was reduced to arguing at a news conference that “the president is relevant.” The next day, bombers blew up an Oklahoma City federal building, and Mr. Clinton’s steady, reassuring and empathetic response made him more of a national leader.

Mr. Sosnik identified two other phases that followed. Phase 2, he said, was spent “getting our theory of the case on how we were going to deal with this new reality,” and really started when Mr. Clinton proposed balancing the budget in hopes of outflanking the Republicans. Phase 3, he said, came in the fall of 1995, when Mr. Clinton engaged Republicans over the role of government, ultimately refusing to agree to deeper spending cuts and winning the spin battle over who was responsible for government shutdowns.

Underlying all of this is the fact that economic growth accelerated rapidly in the mid-1990s. For example, I think most of us would agree that were an allegation to emerge that Barack Obama had an affair with a White House intern, then Obama responded by denying the affair to his senior staff and the public, then it was proven that he’d been lying, and then it was also proven that he’d offered misleading sworn testimony about the matter that this would constitute a serious political misstep. And yet, all those things happened to Bill Clinton and he enjoyed high approval ratings and Democratic gains in the 1998 midterms.

That’s not to say that Obama’s tactical decisions don’t matter. They make a great deal of difference to the question of what laws get passed, which regulations are implemented, what judges obtain lifetime appointments, and to the conduct of US foreign policy. And these things, in turn, to some extent influence the performance of the American economy. But it’s the performance of the economy that will, above all else, determine Obama’s public fortunes just as it did for Clinton.