Michael Gerson

But it is not clear what such things might be. Given the federal budget crisis, prospects are poor for major new stimulus spending or backfilling state and local budgets. While the jobs number for June was bad, it was probably not bad enough to result in another round of quantitative easing when the Federal Reserve meets late this month. So Obama is left with a series of smaller-scale proposals -- maintaining existing middle-class tax breaks, spending on infrastructure, funding some jobs for teachers -- that no self-respecting Keynesian economist would judge sufficient.

Obama is showing signs of ideological exhaustion. He seems incapable of producing an economic agenda equal to his political challenge.

The administration is left with one main self-justification: that financial panics cause longer downturns and slower recoveries. Which is historically correct, but not the primary issue. The relevant question: Has Obama accelerated or slowed the recovery?

Obama is not responsible for the eurozone crisis or the softening of the Chinese economy. But he has done several things to hinder American recovery. "He turned a temporary expansion of government, through TARP and the auto bailouts, into a permanent expansion of government," argues Keith Hennessey of the Hoover Institution. "Government, measured by federal spending, is this year about 15 percent bigger than the historical average, measured relative to the economy. ... This drains resources from private firms and individuals and means slower productivity growth."

Obama's major regulatory initiatives, particularly Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, have added to economic uncertainty. Businesses are waiting for the implications of these laws to become clear, and federal rules to be written, before making investment choices. At the same time, the Obama administration has failed to make tough calls and secure legislative compromises on a variety of issues -- the federal debt, future tax rates, the Keystone pipeline -- that might remove sources of economic uncertainty. Instead, we get short-term policy extensions on large policy matters.

Given both the state of the economy and his policy performance, the buoyancy of Obama's polling is a political marvel. But a portion of this depends on doubts about Mitt Romney, which can be eased. A humanizing Romney convention speech, some reassuring debate performances, a few innovative policy proposals appealing to Latinos or suburban women -- and Romney becomes a more broadly imaginable president.

In this case, Obama could well suffer a Carter-like collapse, circa 1980. Not because of an ideological shift but a simple, collective judgment: He did not deliver recovery.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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