Answering Jonathan Alter

On Friday, Jonathan Alter wrote a column challenging his readers to "prove" why Obama "has been a bad president."  He ended his piece, which he based off of the old Mission Impossible television show, by saying, "Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to be specific and rational, not vague and visceral." 

I wish to take up that task, but before I do so, readers must understand something about Jonathan Alter and his views.  The former editor of Newsweek, Alter has written books and articles defending liberalism for decades. His latest book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, ardently vindicates the president's first year in office and exalts Barack Obama as one of the greatest leaders the U.S. could have asked for.  It's therefore understandable that he, unlike others on the Left, would still cling to the hopes of a successful Obama presidency. Unfortunately for the rest of the nation, he's wrong.

President Obama's term should first be placed into historical context in order to gauge his competency in comparison to those who worked in the White House before him. After all, a president still remains confined to what can be passed in Congress.  The first evidence against Barack Obama's competency is his lack of achievement, given such large majorities in Congress.  The current resident of the White House had something that two of the most popular recent presidents, who were regarded as highly competent, could only have dreamt of having: a filibuster-proof majority.  Ronald Reagan could never claim a majority in both Houses of the legislature, while Bill Clinton achieved most of his successes with a legislature from an opposing party.

Yet, despite his party having the largest majority in Congress in over three decades (even after the Scott Brown victory), what was the president able to accomplish?  He was able to pass the Stimulus, ObamaCare, banking reform, and a single one-year budget.  What wasn't he able to do?  Pass an increase in the debt ceiling or a 2011 budget, or even come close to putting or nation's fiscal house in order.  He was also the first president in American history to have his budget unanimously voted down in the Senate. 

There are three pieces of evidence that contribute to my contention that Barack Obama is a bad president, two of which Alter tries to defend.  First, despite the former editor's demand that criticisms of the president "not be vague," his own defense of the Recovery Act of 2009 couldn't be more nebulous.  He claims, "When Obama took office, the economy was losing about 750,000 jobs a month and heading for another Great Depression. The recession ended (at least for a while) and we now are adding several thousand jobs a month -- anemic growth, but an awful lot better than the alternative.  How did that happen? Luck?"  Despite Alter's authoritative voice on the subject, this defense is strikingly detached from reality and much closer to wishful thinking. He assumes that all positive economic progress is directly related to the stimulus and direct government intervention while any negative data is disregarded.  James Taranto recently wrote a column explaining how liberal dogmas are almost universally defended with this kind of circular logic.


Instead of using the laughable "saved jobs" metric, a better comparison, (for all presidents, not just Obama), measures what was promised versus what was delivered.  By now, most Americans probably have seen the chart the administration produced that claimed without the stimulus unemployment would soar to 9% but with the stimulus it would only rise to 8%.  Using this metric is more than fair because it incorporated the president's economic assumptions and shows his understanding of how the economy functions.

The only defense that the administration has been able to come up with, which Alter undoubtedly supports, is that the president didn't understand the magnitude of the recession.  Would that excuse fly in the real world? Imagine a plumber arguing that he didn't understand the size of the leak after he failed to fix a pipe, or an architect stating that the collapse of his building was due to his misunderstanding of the strength of the steel he used.  Both workers would be considered bad at their jobs by the public, who would then seek someone else to address the same task.  The last time a president overstated what he believed his policies would do, these bumper stickers became fashionable on the Left.

Secondly, Alter tries to get in front of a second criticism of the Obama administration by using straw men to defend ObamaCare and its effect on job creation.  He writes:

Health care consumed enormous time and political capital in late 2009 and early 2010. But with the stimulus new and still being absorbed (with remarkably little scandal) into the American economy, it's not as if health care distracted the president from another jobs program in that period. Sure, he should have rhetorically "pivoted to jobs" earlier, but substantively it wouldn't have made much difference. And Republicans have offered no evidence for their claim that the Affordable Care Act (which includes tax credits for small businesses) has contributed to current levels of unemployment. How could it? The program hasn't even fully begun yet.


While there were small "tax cuts" in ObamaCare, they hardly compared to the massive amounts of tax increases immediately imposed as well as those scheduled to go into effect in the future.  He also ignores that the president has tacitly admitted that ObamaCare will not lower healthcare costs, while conveniently leaving out the fact that the Democratic reform hurts businesses so badly that over a thousand companies have received a waiver temporarily exempting them from the law.


Alter furthermore tries to argue that future taxes do not impact the current economy by pointing to Warren Buffett, one of the super-rich, to support his point.  He contends:


The all-purpose explanation from the business community is "uncertainty." We're told that people, and enterprises, won't invest because they aren't sure about future taxes. This is a crock. "People invest to make money," the noted lefty socialist Warren E. Buffett recently wrote in the New York Times, "and potential taxes have never scared them off."

Using that logic, does Steve Wynn calling Obama a bad president make it so? What about the CEO of a large restaurant company? Just as Buffett's biased opinion does not exempt the president from a poor economic record, the opinions of a small handful of successful businessmen do not prove a point about public policy.

However, economic case studies do.   Though Illinois has shown the dramatic impact of tax increases in relation to the creation of jobs, the comparison between Maryland and Virginia, two states that gain a large economic benefit from proximity to the nation's capital, has shown how Obama's economic and budgetary thinking fails.  Jim Geraghty a few days ago reported, "Just days after Virginia governor Bob McDonnell announced a $544 million surplus, Maryland governor Martin O'Malley told county leaders Saturday that Maryland may need to increase taxes to solve a $1 billion budget gap next year."

The difference is stark and contributes to Obama's biggest failure, which provides significant evidence that he is an ineffective president. Like other bad presidents before him, President Obama has not only ignored a looming crisis facing the nation, but rather, has contributed to the massive national debt. President Obama has increased the debt faster than any other president in history, while he and his followers gladly try to make political hay from offered solutions instead actually solving of the problem. This failure in leadership has made the current occupant of the White House seem more like James Buchanan -- a bad president -- and less like the former American leader he has desperately tried to connect himself to, Abraham Lincoln.

Carl Paulus will receive his PhD in American History from Rice University in May 2012.