It's almost unfair how many smart, witty things Chris Rock managed to say in his interview with Frank Rich (this passage, arguing that the term "racial progress" is nonsense, is particularly brilliant). No one man should have all that off-the-cuff insight. So it's of some small comfort that when the conversation turned to politics, Rock endorsed a genuinely wrong theory of the Obama presidency.
What has Obama done wrong?
When Obama first got elected, he should have let it all just drop.
Let what drop?
Just let the country flatline. Let the auto industry die. Don’t bail anybody out. In sports, that’s what any new GM does. They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don’t try to save old management’s mistakes.
That’s clever. You let it all go to hell.
Let it all go to hell knowing good and well this is on them. That way you can implement. You hire your own coach. You get your own players. He could have got way more done. You know, we’ve all been on planes that had tremendous turbulence, but we forget all about it. Now, if you live through a plane crash, you’ll never forget that. Maybe Obama should have let the plane crash. You get credit for bringing somebody back from the dead. You don’t really get credit for helping a sick person by administering antibiotics.
The big problem with this idea — which I've heard other liberals propose in the past — is it's morally odious: it would have meant putting millions of Americans through harrowing pain in order to help Obama out politically. If a GM lets a team flatline the team loses a few games. If the president lets the country's financial sector flatline millions of people's lives are destroyed.
But the other problem with this idea is it would have be a political disaster for any president, including Obama, who tried it.
The key fact about Obama's early presidency is, whether he wanted it to or not, it did just all drop.
Obama was elected in November of 2008. The unemployment rate was 6.8 percent. He took office in January of 2009. The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. By October of that year, the unemployment rate was 10 percent.
This was the insoluble political problem of Obama's first term: he took office, and then it all got worse. Administration economists could protest all they wanted that they stopped a deep recession from becoming another Great Depression — and they probably did. But you don't make friends with counterfactuals. "It's bad, but it could've been terrible" is a crappy bumper sticker.
The "let it burn" strategy
What Rock is suggesting is that Obama's political situation would have improved if he had stood back and let it get much worse even than it did. So Obama takes office and lets the banks collapse. He takes office and lets the car companies collapse. He allows a great and cleansing economic fire to sweep across the nation. And then, when unemployment hits 23 percent and the breadlines snake through the streets and the Republican Party is burnt to a crisp, he begins to rebuild.
There are a few problems with this. First, a worse financial crisis would also have meant a harder-to-fix financial crisis. There would have been that many more people to put back to work, that much less credit to fund the businesses that might hire them, that many fewer car companies to employ them, that much more government debt to turn members of Congress against stimulus. Even if Obama could have gotten more done, the opportunity would've been overwhelmed by how much more there would have been to do.
Second, no president remains popular amidst skyrocketing unemployment. When the economy dipped in 1937, Democrats lost 78 House and seven Senate seats in the next election. If FDR had been on the ballot he almost certainly would have been defeated. When the Federal Reserve sent unemployment into the double-digits in 1982, Ronald Reagan's party lost 27 House seats and the late David Broder declared that his presidency was in "its phase-out." There are basically no examples of a president getting more popular even as unemployment rises sharply.
Plus, Americans already did the thing Rock wanted them to do: they blamed Bush even as the economy worsened under Obama. In June 2012, three years into Obama's presidency, 68 percent blamed Bush for the state of the economy, while only 52 percent blamed Obama. In February 2014, the situation was roughly unchanged: a plurality of Americans still placed most of the blame on Bush for the state of the economy.
Americans were right to believe that Obama inherited the bulk of the economic crisis. But the strategy Rock counsels here would have made them wrong. It would have turned the depth of the recession from something Obama inherited to something he permitted. And my hunch is the backlash would have been fierce, and justified.
But this does give way to one of the more interesting counterfactuals of the Obama era: What if Obama had taken office a bit later? The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, moved the beginning of the president's term from March 4th to January 20th. By March of 2009, unemployment had hit 8.7 percent, and the depth and power of the recession was coming clear. What would the stimulus debate have looked like in that world? How much readier to cooperate would Congress have been in that world?
The FDR example is instructive here. As Theda Skocpol and Lawrence Jacobs point out in "Reaching For a New Deal", Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932. The Great Depression was three years old at that point, and unemployment was 23.6 percent. Obama won the presidency in 2008, mere months into his economic crisis. FDR's timing was better for his presidency — though worse for the country — than Obama's; the only surefire way for a president to escape all blame for an economic disaster is to have someone else be president when it happens.