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The Case For Fatalism

The debate among liberals over the economy has essentially created two camps. You have economic pessimists/political optimists, who have emphasized the awfulness of the economy, but argue that stronger action (or at least rhetoric) from President Obama could measurably improve things, or at the very least help him avoid the blame. Then you have economic optimists/political pessimists, who insist there's no way to pass better macroeconomic policy, but the economy isn't really as bad as people think. (This is more or less the Obama administration's view.)

Personally, I'm an economic pessimist and a political fatalist. The economy is awful, and it's going to stay awful for a long time. Financial crises tend to produce very, very slow recoveries. But Americans don't really believe in economic stimulus. And even if they did, Republicans have zero incentive to support it. Here's former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer's reaction to this morning's jobs report:

Today's unemployment numbers: Uh-O. And the O stands for Obama.

Yeah, Republicans are perfectly aware that the slow recovery is their best chance to retake power. And no, I don't think they lock that information into a sealed compartment when they figure out their position on legislation that could impact unemployment between now and November 2012.

I should say I'm not a complete and total fatalist. The Federal Reserve still has a few bullets in its chamber if Ben Bernanke can overcome the phantasmal fears of inflation hawks. Obama could start to do more to champion a few specific policies, like a payroll tax cut, and blame Republicans for opposing them. But otherwise, yes, I have to admit that I think the economic situation is very grim and the political system isn't capable of doing much to fix it.

As for Obama, the underlying economic facts make him vulnerable. But his popularity has held up remarkably well given the underlying economic conditions. At this point, the state of the economy is almost completely beyond his control. All he can impact is the other stuff.