The economy’s looking up, but can Obama take credit?

Megan McArdle Feb 16, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: It’s been the conventional wisdom for a good couple of years now that President Obama’s prospects for continued employment rest largely with the unemployment rate and consumer confidence.

Commentator Megan McArdle says just because things are looking up, that doesn’t mean the president gets the credit.

Megan McArdle: Over the past several months, the GOP candidates have done their best to link President Obama with the economy in voters’ minds. And why not? Tens of millions are still out of work, and while growth may be picking up, it’s still not fast enough to repair resumes or credit scores.

But Mitt Romney should have thought twice before he claimed that Obama had “made the recession worse.” The reason is — it just isn’t true. There is just no evidence that the economy would have been any stronger today under President John McCain. Hold on Democrats, there’s no reason to think that it would be any weaker, either.

The fact is that presidents have remarkably little control over the economy. Economists just don’t know that much about what mix of policies make economies grow. The best presidents can do is something like Obama’s massive stimulus package — but fiscal stimulus doesn’t grow the underlying economy as much as borrow some growth from the future.

Frankly, we should be glad that presidents don’t have that kind of power. You wouldn’t like living in an economy that was prone to radical shifts every time a new president was elected.

Unfortunately for Obama, voters tend to put a human face on large, impersonal forces. We can’t get mad at technological progress that destroys low-skilled jobs, so instead we get mad at the president. But don’t feel too sorry for him. After all, when he was campaigning in ’08, Obama frequently complained that President Bush had “driven the economy into a ditch.” And Obama promised he would drive it out again.

Even after he was elected, he told NBC’s Matt Lauer: “If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” We’d probably all be better off if voters didn’t assume that presidents can fix the economy. And we’d definitely be better off if presidential candidates didn’t tell them so.

Ryssdal: Megan McArdle is a business writer at The Atlantic magazine. Your thoughts? Send ’em to us.

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