11/02/2010 03:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Economy is the Problem, Not Obama

The punditocracy apparently cannot resist the tendency to personalize political trends and developments. It has turned the midterm election into a political melodrama starring Barack Obama as the redeemer-President who inspired such soaring hopes in 2008, yet unaccountably failed to transform America in his first two years.

The saga of Obama agonies may be more interesting, but public angst about the economy is what is really driving today's election.

Sure, the president's approval ratings are down (though not as low as Ronald Reagan's or Bill Clinton's at the same juncture). The public believes that the administration's policies have failed to revive the economy, even while plunging the nation deeper in debt and, in the case of health care, expanding government's reach.

But if unemployment were, at say, seven percent and trending downward, voters probably would see things in a more optimistic light. What's oppressing the electorate is not the specter of big government, it's the hangover from the 2007-2009 economic crisis, the worst to hit America since the Great Depression.

It's not just lingering unemployment (9.6 percent). Americans lost roughly $11 trillion in net worth in those years, including about $4 trillion in home equity. Though stock prices rebounded somewhat, foreclosures continue apace and sales of new homes are at a 50-year low. Hammered by this "negative wealth effect," U.S. households are shedding debt instead of spending, which depresses economic demand.

Our big banks still carry hundreds of billions of troubled loans on their books, and small businesses still have difficulty getting loans. U.S. businesses are keeping payrolls lean to cut costs, while sitting on nearly $2 trillion in retained earnings.

The federal government, meanwhile, seems to have exhausted the usual countercyclical remedies. With the national debt swelling rapidly, there's little appetite in Washington for another dollop of stimulative spending (and will be even less if Republicans take over the House). The Federal Reserve says it's ready for another round of "quantitative easing" -- a.k.a. printing money -- but interest rates are already near zero.

The truth is, an economic downturn triggered by a financial crisis is much deeper and prolonged than an ordinary recession. No wonder voters are in a sour mood. They are lashing out at the party in power because the real culprits -- the Republicans who were asleep at the switch as the housing and financial bubbles formed -- aren't around anymore to catch the blame. That's not fair, but politics seldom is.

And while conventional wisdom pillories Obama for pushing health care or financial regulatory reform rather than spending every waking hour focusing obsessively on jobs, it's not clear that would have made much of a difference.

The supposedly awesome powers of the presidency don't include any magic levers for creating private sector jobs or dramatically speeding up recovery. In 1982, unemployment was even higher -- 10.4 percent -- on Election Day. Rather than promise instant relief, Reagan said the pain was necessary to wring inflation out of the economy and lay a stronger foundation for future growth. He urged Americans to "stay the course" and ride out the downturn. Republicans lost 26 House seats that year, but the economy eventually sprang back to life and propelled Reagan to a thumping reelection.

Obama is right to stay calm, rather than running around the country trying to do something that doesn't come naturally to him: emoting and feeling peoples' pain. Instead, he should be crafting a new and more compelling economic narrative focused on unleashing American entrepreneurship and innovation. Forget Paul Krugman; Obama's challenge is not to press for more stimulus or whine about economic inequality or posture as an anti-business populist, it's to propose structural changes that will assure a broader, more robust economic recovery. These include an infrastructure bank, a new clean energy roadmap, pro-growth regulatory and tax reform (including corporate taxes), and a credible plan to restore fiscal stability once the economy regains strength.

Such a plan also is the best way to assure Democrats' political recovery from the drubbing they will take today.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.