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What could Obama have done?

By Ezra Klein,

Andrew Harrer Bloomberg As Jon Chait says, the New York Times tried to run a feature in which they “asked a range of Americans who don’t labor in politics or the media what they’d do if they were president” and returned with a feature in which an range of wealthy and accomplished Americans explained what they would do if they were king. They didn’t explain what they would do if they were president and had to persuade Congress to do things in order to get anything done.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which the past few years could have gone differently. I’ve even come up with a few. But none of them lead to dramatically better outcomes today.

I can come up with scenarios in which President Obama accomplished somewhat less — perhaps by scaling back the health-care plan — and lost fewer seats in the midterm election. I can come up with scenarios in which the White House accomplished marginally more — perhaps by using the reconciliation process for an energy bill — but paid a greater political cost. I can come up with scenarios in which the stimulus was slightly more visible — perhaps it could have wiped out the payroll tax entirely — or slightly larger or included a long-term deficit reduction component.

But I’ve never been able to come up with a realistic scenario in which a lot more got done, the economy is in much better shape, and the president is dramatically more popular today. Anything that even comes close is really a counterfactual of what the chairman of the Federal Reserve could have done, and I’m not confident that I understand Bernanke’s constraints nor that a more massive intervention on the part of the Fed would have been the cure-all some suggest.

Indeed, if you had taken me aside in 2008 and sketched out the first three years of Obama’s presidency, I would have thought you were being overoptimistic: an $800 billion stimulus package — recall that people were only talking in the $200-$300 billion range back then — followed by near-universal health-care reform, followed by financial regulation, followed by another stimulus (in the 2010 tax deal), followed by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” followed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the apparent ousting of Moammar Gaddafi? There was no way. And yet all that did get done. But the administration hasn’t able to get unemployment under control — perhaps it couldn’t have gotten unemployment under control — and so all of that has not been nearly enough.

But perhaps I’m missing something obvious. If you have a realistic vision for what an actual president operating in the American political system could have done differently, leave it in comments.

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