An evaluation of the first 200 days of Obama economics

Author: Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard Kennedy School

Friday marks 200 days in office for President Obama. “How has he done?” asks Fortune.

Given the challenges he faces, Obama has done very well

The first thing to say is that Barack Obama took over the presidency at an extremely difficult time. A variety of analogies suggest themselves: He is Harry Houdini who has been thrown in the river, in a straitjacket, with chains wrapped around him. Or he has taken over as the captain of a ship with a rotting hull, while the ship is under attack in a hurricane. To capture the state of the economy, perhaps the best metaphor is that Obama took over as pilot of an airplane in the middle of a steep dive. For a president precedent, he is Lincoln, who takes office as the South secedes. Or he is Roosevelt, who takes office at the depth of the Great Depression.

In any case, in light of the difficult circumstances, I think Obama has done amazingly well.

The financial markets were in free-fall six months ago. Bank spreads were at historic highs (a good indicator of just how outside-the-box this financial crisis was). GDP contracted at an annual rate of about 6 % in the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of this year.

Since then, the airplane has begun to level off. Those bank spreads are down to more normal levels. GDP declined at an annual rate of “only” 1% according to last Friday’s advance estimate; if I had to guess, we will see a bottom in the second half of the year and could see some positive growth. I give a lot of credit to the fiscal stimulus, to the monetary stimulus, and to the financial repair measures, as messy as those inevitably were.

At the time our new president took office in January, there was a danger that this could be not only the worst of the post-war recessions, but as bad as Japan in the 1990s. I think we have now avoided that. We have learned from mistakes in the past, particularly the mistakes of the Depression – those made by the Federal Reserve, Hoover, and also Roosevelt. Obama has the advantage of the lessons of the 1930s to learn from. But he has the disadvantage of having inherited an exploding path of debt (unnecessarily incurred by this predecessors). The debt is the rotting hull of the ship of state.

Regarding February’s stimulus package, some commentators said it was too small, some said it was too large. In truth, it was both. It was too small by itself to return us to full employment, to knock out the recession. In order to bring us back to full employment, we would need a boost to spending several times as big. And yet, at the same time, it was too large to guarantee that we avoid losing the confidence of our international creditors. If they stop buying our bonds, US long-term interest rates could rise sharply. (China — the largest holder of US Treasury securities — has already begun to ask questions about the value of US debt.) But the Administration struck an appropriate balance between these two competing concerns.

People are angry about the big bonuses that are still being paid to those in the financial sector who got us into this problem. Entirely understandable. But don’t forget that, from the beginning, the goal was to prevent a depression in the general economy. That has been accomplished. You don’t punish someone who has been smoking in bed by allowing the resultant fire to burn down the block. The Administration and the Fed always admitted freely that helping some undeserving financiers would be an undesirable but necessary side effect of the rescue plan. And do you remember all the pundits who warned that the rescue could not work unless the banks were temporarily nationalized? Or all the cynics who dismissed claims that the Treasury would recoup a share of the budget costs as firms like Goldman Sachs repaid their loans with interest?

In my view, overall, Obama has gotten far more things right than wrong. He has bravely proposed things that most sensible economists — whether Republican or Democrat — have long favored. Proposing is not always the same as enacting; there is the matter of Congress. But he has tried to get them passed, and has tried to do it in a bipartisan way. (That bipartisanship constraint is one of the Houdini chains.)

Washington has always been stymied by the political constraints of what can pass Congress. Often presidents figure that special interest groups will block sensible reforms, so why waste political capital trying? But an example, which I find extremely encouraging, including symbolically, is that (with the help of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), Obama proposed to end spending on the F22 fighter. The F22 is probably the most egregious example in the defense budget of spending on hugely expensive weapons systems that the Pentagon doesn’t want because they are not useful for today’s national security needs. To my surprise, Obama actually prevailed on this.

I can also name two areas where he proposed very sensible legislation that a heavy majority of economists of both parties would support, and yet where he has lost in Congress (at least so far). One is cutting agricultural subsidies to agribusiness and rich farmers. Another is auctioning off most of the greenhouse gas emission permits in any plan like the Waxman-Markey Bill, rather than giving them away to industry. (Obama’s proposal was to use the proceeds of the auctions to reduce the marginal tax rate on low-income workers, to “Make Work Pay,” which would have been an excellent use of the funds.)

But the fact that he is trying, and that he is winning some of the battles, is important. He is willing to fight the fight, while yet compromising when politically necessary. It is tremendously important that the public take notice of these details. There are always particular interest groups that stand to lose from any given reform such as farm supports, military procurement or emission permit auctions; if the general public pays no attention to the details and does not support the President on them, it means special interests will triumph over the general good as so often in the past.

If I had to find one mistake that the White House has made, the initial economic forecasts were too optimistic, at least with respect to the unemployment rate. It was an honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless… not just with respect to the economics: politically, Obama would have been better to recognize the severity of the recession from day one.

Regarding the health plan, we as yet have no idea what the outcome will be. The big questions, of course, are how to reduce costs and how to pay for getting everybody insured. Instead of proposing an income surcharge on the wealthy, I would have preferred eliminating non-taxability of employer-provided health benefits— that’s what McCain was for in the campaign, and most economists as well. The non-taxability could have been retained for workers in lower income brackets if the White House felt this was essential. At the least, Senator Kerry’s astute version, which is aimed at curbing the effective taxpayer subsidy in the cases of the most egregiously expensive health care insurers, should be politically saleable. You can call Obama’s failure, so far, to move in this direction a second mistake. But, since Fortune asked my opinion of how much the President has done right versus wrong, I put the score at 98 to 2.

This article was originally published on Jeff Frankel’s Weblog, and can be found here.