Candide

I’ve found one of the saddest yet most common defenses of President Obama’s handling of his job to be the weird argument that it simply wasn’t possible for him to do a better job, or to do anything different from what he did. It always reminds me of the mantra of the misguided extreme optimist Dr. Pangloss in Candide, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Ezra Klein is up with another post defending Obama with this same basic argument:

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which the past few years could have gone differently. I’ve even come up with a few. But none of them lead to dramatically better outcomes today.

I can come up with scenarios in which President Obama accomplished somewhat less — perhaps by scaling back the health-care plan — and lost fewer seats in the midterm election. I can come up with scenarios in which the White House accomplished marginally more — perhaps by using the reconciliation process for an energy bill — but paid a greater political cost. I can come up with scenarios in which the stimulus was slightly more visible — perhaps it could have wiped out the payroll tax entirely — or slightly larger or included a long-term deficit reduction component.

But I’ve never been able to come up with a realistic scenario in which a lot more got done, the economy is in much better shape, and the president is dramatically more popular today. Anything that even comes close is really a counterfactual of what the chairman of the Federal Reserve could have done, and I’m not confident that I understand Bernanke’s constraints nor that a more massive intervention on the part of the Fed would have been the cure-all some suggest.

This is truly a sad lack of imagination. The possibilities of what Obama could have done differently are endless.

Even with the constraints of Congress, Obama could have behaved radically different. I can’t be confident of the outcome, but Obama didn’t need health care reform right away, wasting a year on hopeless bipartisan compromise. Instead, he could have gone after the Recovery Act, remained focused on housing relief, debt relief, and promoted more jobs legislation. Obama had a lot of political capital at the time and significant majorities in Congress. He could likely have passed many small follow up stimulative laws in 2009.  Instead, he pivoted away from the economic crisis because he wrongly ignored those who warned the crisis was going to get worse.

Even if you believe Senate Republicans would have used the filibuster to stop every attempt at more stimulus, Obama could have used reconciliation to pass more stimulus measures with only 50 votes in the Senate. One example: is I wanted health care reform to have the Medicaid expansion start right away. If done right, that could have been an extra $50 billion of stimulus in 2010.

Most importantly though, Obama has not even fully used the power he has to take action without Congress. To begin with, he could have done something smart with the $30 billion for HAMP instead of allowing his administration to turn the program into a disaster. He could have used the Conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie to push for “own to rent” or aggressive mortgage modification. Similarly, Obama could have recess-appointed someone besides Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve and recess-appointed two other progressives to the empty seats on the board.

I can easily see many plausible ways Obama could have directly or indirectly gotten another few hundred billion of stimulus injected into the economy in 2009 and 2010.

The President of the United States is not all powerful, but a President whose party fully controls Congress with big majorities has power. To act like the President simply couldn’t have taken a different path that would have produced a very different outcome is silly. Let’s not act like the destiny of the most powerful man in Washington is practically pre-ordained.