I generally share Ezra Klein’s skepticism about the popular lines of left-wing criticism of Barack Obama, but I think he’s dead wrong to suggest that there’s almost nothing Obama could have done differently to produce a better outcome.
For example, back on ARRA, would it have been impossible to negotiate a deal that featured a smaller headline stimulus number but contained a payroll tax cut “trigger” mechanism if unemployment shot over 8 percent? Maybe it would have been, but it’s not obviously an objectionable idea from the point of view of the pivotal stakeholders and it just wasn’t tried. Similarly, timely nominations for Federal Reserve Board vacancies would have made a difference. The administration could have moved swiftly to nominate someone to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency who was committed to using the powers of that office to move the economy. I’m sure there’s more stuff out there. The first six months of a new administration are a confusing time, and President Obama was acting based on badly inaccurate macroeconomic estimates. It would be extraordinary if there hadn’t been a number of blunders, and personally I wouldn’t want to position myself as an “Obama defender” who somehow holds the incumbent blameless for the objectively bad situation facing the country.
What an awful lot of people seem to do, however, is look at alleged mistakes early in the administration, assume that they weren’t mistakes, reach the conclusion that this proves Obama’s nefarious intent, and then assume that absent nefarious intent Obama would be accomplishing tons of awesome new stuff right now. That involves a lot of logical leaps. The original sin here was not thinking seriously enough about the question “what will we wish we’d done if 30 months from now the BEA turns out to have been underestimating the recession?” It turns out to have been a serious one, but I don’t think it supports nearly the inferential weight that a lot of people seem inclined to put on it.