When historians look back at how Barack Obama lost the 2012 election — or won it only because the Republicans nominated a certifiable space case — they will doubtless focus on his first few months in office and ponder why he didn’t do more to stanch the recession and arrest the downward mobility of the American people.
Of course, by the standards of a conventional recession and conventional American politics, Obama did a lot. He sent an $800 billion stimulus package to the Hill, where it encountered rocky going from Republicans and center-right Democrats who thought it too large. It did look large at the time, even though critics pointed out that its chief features — an incremental payroll tax cut, aid to state governments, and funds for infrastructure projects that trickled painfully slowly through the normal state and local bidding and approval processes — might halt the economy’s slide but were hardly sufficient to turn it around. And by opting for barely perceptible tax cuts, preserving public services and a glacial rollout of public works, the Obama administration had devised a stimulus whose price tag was apparent to all but whose achievements were all but invisible.