Last November, the political science models that predict presidential-election winners broke. As has long been taught, no incumbent ever wins re-election after presiding over weak recovery from a steep recession and 1.5% yearly economic growth—namely President Obama’s record over his first term in office.
So political scientists have to tend to their models. In the offing, you might expect the president to have breathed a sigh of relief. As of last election day, Barack Obama had the worst economic-growth record of any president since Herbert Hoover. Even George W. Bush had him beat by a tenth of a point. And Bush’s presidency started from a very high base—the peak of Bill Clinton prosperity—while Mr. Obama’s started near the bottom of the Great Recession freefall.
It is stunning how poor economic growth has been for years now. Surely President Obama would want to take the gift of a second term as an opportunity to get some good growth going. If output cruises a bit in his second term, that 1.5%-per-year number can be hiked up to respectability, and he won’t have to be at the bottom of the wrong lists in the history books.
It’s not as easy as it seems. Over the remainder of his time in office, growth will have to average 3.3% per year (which happens to be the post-World War II trend mark) for Mr. Obama to match the president who sits above W. on the modern low-growth list, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike saw only 2.4% growth over his eight years in the presidency.
In other words, if growth in his second term is double the rate of his first term, the President will still have a record that compares with the bottom-tier Republicans. If growth stays put, Mr. Obama competes with W. for who is the last name before Hoover.
Incredibly, it appears that Mr. Obama will pursue an entirely alternative strategy in years five through eight. He will try to change the subject. Given our serious growth deficiency, last week’s inaugural address was nothing short of a non-sequitur. The priorities of this second term will be gay marriage, gun control, spousal pay, and inequality.
The thinking, apparently, is that this uncommonly charismatic figure (as certain political consultants consider President Obama) is capable of altering the criteria by which this country has come to pass judgment on its chief executives. If Mr. Obama succeeds in a big way on social issues, then his sorry economic record will get lost in the glow of that success.
This reflects an absorption, on the part of President Obama’s political strategists (if not the president himself), of the wisdom of Thomas Frank’s expose of the W. electorate, the 2004 mega-hit, What’s the Matter With Kansas? In this book, Frank marveled that economically marginal voters (such as poor whites in Kansas) voted Republican on account of issues like abortion and guns, given that the G.O.P. in power meant tax cuts for the rich. Frank found that people will vote against their own economic interests when the allure of social issues is strong.
The problem with What’s the Matter with Kansas? is that it has aged terribly. As we now know, because of the national conversation we have been having for the past three years about the “Bush tax cuts,” W. cut taxes most massively for the middle and lower classes, and only a smidge for the rich. Frank was all wet back in 2004. His analysis lacked a control. Perhaps the regular voters who returned Bush to office were worked up over social issues. But they were also major beneficiaries of Bush’s tax policy.
Thus does it appear, in 2013, that through some weird osmosis, the old wisdom of Thomas Frank has stopped being a diagnosis of why majorities vote Republican (flawed as that was) to being an action-plan for a Democratic incumbent caught in a slow-growth trap. Double-down on social issues, President Obama, and all will be right.
Surely the Thomas Frank way will fare poorly again. One of the greatest facts in this country’s history is its economic prosperity. Americans are not going to forget about how much they care about it just because one of their presidents was Mr. Cool, no matter how many of us seem to get nodding and somnolent in the face of this man’s platitudes. Mr. Obama stands to get buried by the judgment of future generations if this sad-sack economic performance is normalized.
The truly revealing story earlier this month was Rep. Jose Serrano’s bid to repeal the limitation on presidents seeking third terms. Little-known fact: Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a third term in 1940 because he knew that had he quit after two terms that year, economic growth would have been nearly nil on his watch, compared to the levels that had prevailed in the Roaring 1920s. Roosevelt knew that that record would be found unacceptable in the future. Today we praise FDR for getting us out of the Great Depression—not on account of the New Deal of the 1930s, but the world war of the 1940s.
President Obama’s allies know that this president is going to need yet more time to secure an economic-growth record that Americans will judge as worthy of this nation’s traditions.
Books on the topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Originally published at Forbes.com the essay is reprinted here with gracious permission of Brian Domitrovic.