The question of ‘focus’

Not quite a year into the Obama presidency, political analyst Charlie Cook argued that the president made “a colossal miscalculation” by choosing the wrong priorities. What Obama should have done is focus on the economy “like a laser beam.”

Bruce Bartlett picks up the same charge today.

Once the stimulus was enacted, he turned his attention elsewhere. He appeared to believe that he had done quite enough to turn the economy around and thus moved on to other issues such as health reform, the environment and energy policy, which occupied an enormous amount of White House attention in 2009 and 2010. […]

Imagine that instead of wasting months on health reform and other non-economic and non-time-sensitive measures in 2009 and 2010, Obama had single-mindedly kept his attention on the economy. If the time he spent being briefed on health reform had instead been spent with his economic advisers, then perhaps he would have been more aware than he appears to have been that the stimulus was insufficient. Perhaps there might have been opportunities during the appropriations process to raise and redirect funds into more economically stimulative channels….

Bernstein finds this persuasive. Drum doesn’t. I’m with Drum on this.

In early 2009, President Obama immediately got to work on the Recovery Act, and successfully pushed a major bill through Congress pretty quickly. Yes, we now know it should have included significantly more spending, but as Bruce Bartlett concedes, the White House was operating with limited information in the midst of an international crisis with a Congress that wouldn’t have made a bigger investment anyway. Regardless, that stimulus stopped the bleeding, helped turn the economy around, and millions of Americans are working today who wouldn’t have those jobs were it not for the Recovery Act.

But the notion that the president should have “focused” more strikes me as unpersuasive. Obama never stopped “focusing” on the economy; he just had limited options while the Recovery Act continued to work. Indeed, by late-Spring 2010, the economy was starting to look pretty good and there was considerable hand-wringing in Republican circles that the speed of the recovery might undermine their 2010 midterm plans. Was Obama likely to have much success going to Congress asking for more public investments?

Also keep in mind, in December 2009, it was President Obama who was worried the Recovery Act wouldn’t be enough to carry the economy through 2010, and urged Congress to approve additional stimulus. At the time, Bruce Bartlett argued publicly that more stimulus wasn’t needed. Obama was still focused on what mattered, but Congress sided with those who cautioned against further action.

In hindsight, talk of presidential “focus” strikes me as underwhelming. As Kevin put it, “What does it mean to ‘single-mindedly’ keep his attention on the economy? … I really think we often overestimate just how much difference presidential ‘attention’ makes. It’s just not possible to stay focused laser-like on the economy for years at a time when (a) things really do seem to be improving, and (b) your own party is eager to get moving on other stuff. That was the situation in early 2010. I’m not convinced that there was really all that much Obama could have done about it.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.