The Counterfactual President: Obama Averted Disasters, but Getting Credit Is the Hard Part

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Jason Reed / Jason Reed

President Obama, at Miami Central Senior High School on March 4, 2011, kicked off his re-election campaign on Monday

The New Republic recently asked an intriguing question about the U.S. intervention in Libya: Why isn't Obama getting credit for preventing an atrocity? The answer is obvious when you think about it: because he prevented the atrocity. It's hard to get credit for avoiding a disaster when it's impossible to prove the disaster would have happened without you. Social scientists call this the counterfactual problem. There's no double-blind study to show what would happen in an alternative Libya where the U.S. didn't intervene. If you want credit for stopping a disaster, you have to wait until the disaster is already under way to act, like President Clinton did in Bosnia.

This is a problem for public policy because preventing disasters is infinitely preferable to stopping them in progress. And it's a political problem for Obama, who kicked off his re-election campaign on Monday. He is the counterfactual President, not just on his Libya policy, but on almost all his policies. And as his aides often complain, "I prevented a disaster" is a lousy political slogan. Or as Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts has put it, "It would have been even worse without me" ain't much of a bumper sticker.

"That's us: avoiding even bigger messes since 2009," one senior aide told me before the midterms. "It's a fruitless message."

The most extreme example, of course, was the $787 billion stimulus package that Obama signed during his first month in office, when the economy was shedding 700,000 jobs a month. The immediate goal was to avoid a depression, and in that sense it was a tremendous success, stopping the hemorrhaging and stabilizing the scariest economic situation since the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office and other independent analysts estimate that without it, the unemployment rate would be 2% higher today.

But 8.8% unemployment is still awful. States and cities are still laying off cops and teachers — just not as many as they would have without the stimulus. That the recovery remains soft is indisputable; that it would have been much softer or nonexistent without the stimulus turns out to be extremely disputable, even though it's an article of faith among most nonpartisan economists. Once again, there's no alternative economy that Obama can put in a petri dish to prove how horrific things would have gotten without his intervention. His team has tried to remind Americans that he inherited an economy in free fall, that the aftermaths of financial meltdowns are always long and brutal, that depressions are exponentially worse than even the nastiest recessions. But last November, voters seemed more aware of actual pain than of the theoretical pain they were saved from feeling.

Obama's defense of other major achievements have similar counterfactual problems. His health care overhaul included serious efforts to rein in soaring costs, but they haven't kicked in yet — and when they do, they'll just make medical care somewhat less exorbitant. It's possible that the public will appreciate premiums that soar a bit less than they would have in the no-action case, but it's not very likely. His financial reforms should reduce the chances of another Wall Street meltdown, but it's classic disaster prevention: if they fail, it's a scandal, and if they work, we won't notice. "Avoiding financial cataclysms since 2008" isn't much of a message either.

Most of Obama's counterfactual problems can be traced to what his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calls the "gift bag" that President Bush left for him. The gift bag included the worst economy in 80 years, a nightmare on Wall Street, a deficit spiraling out of control, one unnecessary war in Iraq and one intractable war in Afghanistan, a dysfunctional health care system, and an energy policy that was broiling the planet and exposing consumers to violent swings in gas prices. Obama basically ended the war in Iraq, but attention just shifted to the potential quagmire in Afghanistan. He's been a paragon of fiscal responsibility compared with Bush, but he's still blamed for the megadeficits primarily created by Bush's tax cuts and the Great Recession. Obama has jacked up fuel-efficiency standards and his stimulus included the most aggressive clean-energy push in history, but nobody notices when gas costs more than $3 a gallon.

Even as the country collapsed on Bush's watch, his supporters always pointed out that he had "kept us safe" from terrorist attacks. Well, Obama has kept us safe — and he didn't have a Sept. 11 on his watch. But nobody ever mentions that, not even his supporters. Apparently there needs to be a spectacular terrorist attack on U.S. soil during your presidency before you can get credit for preventing another one.

Some Obama supporters believe the solution to the counterfactual problem is better messaging. Bush projected a monomaniacal focus on the evildoers; his Administration's constant press conferences to announce new threat levels or arrests of shadowy foreigners may have ratcheted up fears of terrorism, but they demonstrated the President's priorities. Early in his presidency, Obama and his advisers were reluctant to overemphasize the fragility of the economic situation; they didn't want to stoke panic and further depress demand by "talking down the economy." And once the worst of the crisis passed, Obama moved on to the interminable fight over health care, which made him look like he wasn't intensely focused on jobs.

It's true that during his campaign, Obama's message of change — the lofty rhetoric about his victory being the moment that the oceans stop rising, the middle class starts recovering, your toilet stops clogging and so on — raised unrealistic expectations about his ability to wave his wand and heal America. And it's true that in the White House, Obama spent his first two years struggling to find a consistent message that told a consistent story. But he shouldn't assume that better messaging would have produced better results for Democrats in the midterms at a time of sky-high unemployment. It's nice that he's finally hammering home a single-minded message about "winning the future," but if he wants to win in 2012, he ought to worry more about reducing unemployment — not just to levels that are less awful than the no-action case, but to levels that aren't awful at all. And ultimately, history judges Presidents by whether they made the world a better place.

There is no solution to the counterfactual problem. It's surely frustrating to Obama and his team that they aren't getting more credit for preventing catastrophes, but public service isn't all about getting credit. That's why it's called public service. They can take comfort in knowing that White Houses do get blamed for the catastrophes they don't prevent; Bush's poll numbers never recovered from his tepid response to Hurricane Katrina. And before they complain too much about the Bush gift bag, they should remember that it's probably the reason they made it to the White House in the first place. There's no way to know for sure; we can't replay the 2008 election in an alternate reality in which the country wasn't falling apart. But there's no point obsessing about counterfactuals.