Delay of Judgment

Democrats haven’t fixed the economy, so they’re rolling back their deadline.


Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C.

Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/GettyImages.

If you don’t think things are changing fast enough in this country—employment, wages, deficit reduction—cheer up. One thing is definitely changing: President Obama’s deadline for fixing the economy.

In February 2009, two weeks after he was sworn in, Obama sat for an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer. Lauer asked him about the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Here’s part of their exchange:

Lauer: At some point, will you say, “Wait a minute. We’ve spent this amount of money. We’re not seeing the results. We’ve got to change course dramatically”?

Obama: Look, I’m at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I’ve got four years. And … a year from now, I think people are gonna see that we’re starting to make some progress. But there’s still gonna be some pain out there. If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s gonna be a one-term proposition.

A year later, many indicators did show progress. But people didn’t think it was adequate, and Democrats were headed for a shellacking in the midterm election. In September 2010, speaking at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, Bill Clinton pleaded for patience:

[Republicans] say: “They had 21 months. Put us back in.” The Democrats are saying something like this: “Look, we found a big hole that we did not dig. And we didn’t get out of it in 21 months, but at least we quit digging. So, don’t go back in reverse. Give us two more years. If it doesn’t work, you have another election in just two years. You can vote us all out then. But for goodness sakes, we quit digging. Don’t bring back the shovel brigade.”

Well, it’s two years later now. We’re three and a half years into Obama’s term. The digging has indeed stopped. The unemployment rate has held steady, and monthly job reports have shown positive numbers, though on balance, they’re just treading water. But we certainly aren’t out of the hole. TARP limited the recession’s damage, but nobody thinks that in terms of economic progress or pain relief, Obama can claim to have gotten it “done” in the three years he gave himself.

So Democrats are doing what people do when they miss a deadline. They’re rolling it back.

On June 14, Obama went to Cuyahoga Community College—the same place where Clinton had offered his two-year timetable in 2010—and picked up the metaphor about digging out of a hole:

From 2001 to 2008, we had the slowest job growth in half a century. The typical family saw their incomes fall. … Not only are we digging out of a hole that is nine million jobs deep, we’re digging out from an entire decade where six million manufacturing jobs left our shores, where costs rose but incomes and wages didn’t, and where the middle class fell further and further behind.

I’m sympathetic to this critique of the Bush years. But what’s striking in Obama’s plea is his extension of the time horizon for judging performance. In the June 14 speech, he pushed back the baseline from 2008 to 2001, implying that he should be judged not by whether people feel better off after Obama’s four years in office, but by comparing economic trends during Bush’s eight years with trends during a similar period under Obama. Then, on July 5, Obama explicitly extended his accountability date beyond 2012: “We knew it would take more than one year or one term or maybe even one president.” Obama now repeats this caveat in nearly every speech.

Last night in his address at the Democratic convention, Clinton joined the effort to ratchet back expectations. He said Obama had “stopped the slide into depression and put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs that he saved or created, there’d still be millions more waiting.” Minutes later, Clinton added:

He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery. … When President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today? The answer is yes. … No president—not me, not any of my predecessors, no one—could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.

Fair enough. But where was that stipulation in 2009 and 2010? Why did Obama say he’d “have this done in three years”? Why did Clinton ask, a year later, for just “two more years”? Where was all this putative foresight about the millions of job seekers who would still be waiting? Where were the warnings about the long, hard road to recovery?

Let’s be honest. Obama was overconfident. So was Clinton, even halfway through Obama’s term. Like most of us, these guys underestimate and overpromise. We shouldn’t believe what they’re telling us now any more than we should have believed, in retrospect, what they told us then. They’ve rolled back their deadline. And if necessary, they’ll roll it back again.

If Obama’s 10-year horizon isn’t long enough for you, try Clinton’s. Here’s what the former president said last night:

Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years. The Democrats [have held it for] 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans, 24 million. Democrats, 42 [million]. … Republican economic policies quadrupled the national debt …in the 12 years before I took office, and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left.

I’m skeptical of numbers like these, since the effects of one president’s policies often don’t show up till the next president’s term. But what’s mind-boggling in Clinton’s argument is its sheer historical scope. Forget whether you’re better off than you were four years ago, or even 10 years ago. The real report card, by Clinton’s reckoning, takes 50 years.

Half a century from now, will the country be better off than it is today? Who knows? The only thing we know for sure is that if it isn’t, politicians will still be playing for time.