Prior to the elections, Eugene Robinson and Bob Herbert wrote columns contemplating whether Obama could have strengthened his standing through alternative priorities. On Thursday, Paul Krugman considered the same issue.
In Robinson's view, a different course was not possible:
[Progressives] argue that the Obama administration's political mistake wasn't pushing its liberal program too hard but not pushing it hard enough...
...Sorry, but it doesn't wash. The problem is that for all the talk of changing the way Washington works, you still have to get actual legislation through an actual Congress. ...The votes for a full-fledged progressive agenda -- single-payer health care, for example -- simply were not there.
...What if Obama and the Democrats had devoted every waking hour to the three issues that Americans care about most: jobs, jobs and jobs?
Well, unemployment would still be painfully high; there's no way the economy could recover 8 million jobs so quickly, no matter what Washington did...
Herbert takes issue with Robinson's last point on jobs:
President Obama and the Democrats blew an important opportunity at the beginning of the president’s term. That was the time, with the economy in virtual free fall, to rally the American people behind a grand plan to rebuild the nation and its economy for the long term...
...Job creation was the most important issue. With his sky-high approval ratings and the economy hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs a month, a bold and creative employment initiative, tied to long-term investments in infrastructure and green energy, was the issue that President Obama could — and should — have used to trump Republican obstructionism.
before and after the midterm elections:
Could Mr. Obama actually have offered [an ambitious recovery] plan? He might not have been able to get a big plan through Congress, or at least not without using extraordinary political tactics. Still, he could have chosen to be bold — to make Plan A the passage of a truly adequate economic plan, with Plan B being to place blame for the economy’s troubles on Republicans if they succeeded in blocking such a plan.
But he chose a seemingly safer course: a medium-size stimulus package that was clearly not up to the task. And that’s not 20/20 hindsight. In early 2009, many economists, yours truly included, were more or less frantically warning that the administration’s proposals were nowhere near bold enough.
...[Obama] still has the ability to engineer significant relief to homeowners, one area where his administration completely dropped the ball during its first two years. Beyond that, Plan B is still available. He can propose real measures to create jobs and aid the unemployed and put Republicans on the spot for standing in the way of the help Americans need.
Robinson's argument is the weakest in its contention that there was nothing the president could have done differently, since the Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats obstructed him and any jobs initiative would have been inadequate. Wouldn't more active engagement and leadership–and possible progress–on jobs have made a difference, at least to his political standing? Herbert is correct in stating that Obama should have been more focused on jobs, the primary issue with the public.
Krugman, however, presents the best case regarding what Obama should have done and what he should do now. While agreeing with Herbert on a jobs initiative, Krugman makes the crucial point: with the private sector and the population not spending, it was the government's place to stimulate the economy–and to do so adequately. He states that Obama can propose measures to help the economy; it is telling, though, that Krugman no longer calls for a second, stronger stimulus. He realizes that the president has been weakened to the point that such an initiative is politically impossible.