You have to feel a little sorry for Team Obama as they squirm to explain why the question "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" is so unfair.
After all, there is only one way to answer it and retain any credibility. Which is why Maryland's Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, when asked, responded, No, we're not. Within 24 hours, he reversed himself, by all accounts because the Obama campaign forced him to. I haven't checked the video to see if he was blinking T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code as he did so.
The idea that presidents "run" the economy is both ludicrous and fairly novel. Before the New Deal (which in my opinion prolonged the Great Depression), the notion that presidents should or could grow the economy was outlandish. But, as the historian H.W. Brands has argued, it was JFK who really cemented the idea that the president is the project manager for a team of technicians who create economic prosperity. "Most of the problems ... that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems," he explained, and should be kept as far away from partisan politics as possible.
President Obama, a hybrid reincarnation of both Kennedy and Roosevelt according to his fans, came into office with similar misconceptions. Controlling the White House, the House and the Senate, his team of propeller heads insisted that if we passed exactly the stimulus they wanted, the unemployment rate would top out at 8 percent and would be well below that by now.
They waved around charts and graphs "proving" they were right, like self-declared messiahs insisting they are to be followed because the prophecies they wrote themselves say so.
They got their stimulus. They were wrong.
They say in their defense that's because the downturn was so much worse than anyone realized. OK, but that just demonstrates the folly of their confidence in the first place. If I jump off a building because I am sure I can fly ("I wrote a study that proves it!"), it's of little solace, and even less of an excuse, if I sputter out my last words from the bloodied pavement, "The pull of gravity was so much worse than I realized."
Obama similarly self-defenestrated his own credibility, but he's still insisting he knows exactly what to do. Now he argues that if we just do what Bill Clinton did -- raise taxes on the top earners plus pass the so-called Buffett rule, which would raise taxes on investment income -- we can have the economy Clinton had. The Buffett rule would pay for 11 hours of government spending in 2013, as Mitt Romney correctly observed -- or 18 hours, according to Democratic reckoning. Anyone believe that would make the economy roar to life?
Obviously, Bill Clinton -- and the Republican congress that forced him to balance the budget -- deserves some credit for the 1990s boom. But last I checked he didn't invent the personal computer, the Internet or biotechnology. Nor did he end the Cold War. The notion that there would have been no "roaring nineties" if George H.W. Bush had been re-elected is simply preposterous.
As much as it pains me to say it, Ronald Reagan deserves some of the blame for this notion that our individual successes and failures are wholly contingent upon the whim of the guy in the Oval Office. He was the one who popularized "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" to such devastating effect against Jimmy Carter. Since then, Democrats have made their own use of this crude reductionism. It has always struck me as a secular form of medieval thinking. My crops will not prosper unless the high priest wills it so.
At least Reagan argued that the economy would prosper if he were allowed to liberate it from the scheming of self-styled experts. Clinton ran out in front of a parade of free market successes and, like Ferris Bueller, acted as if he was leading the parade.
In his manifest hubris, Obama believed it was just that easy. He, too, could simply will vibrant economy into being through sheer intellectual force. But, unlike Bill Clinton, he wouldn't sully himself by playing "small ball." Obama would be "transformative."
For the ancient Greeks, hubris described the sort of arrogance that offends the gods, and precedes the fall. In the current context, it certainly tests the limits of my sympathy.