All Presidents Inherit a Mess

Trump and Obama could take a lesson from Harry Truman

One of President Obama’s worst affectations was his penchant for reminding everyone that he “inherited a mess.” The proximate mess he was referring to was the 2008 financial meltdown that ushered in the Great Recession.

Presidents rarely deserve either the blame or the credit for things which happen on their watch, for several reasons. First, a president only controls certain things, and over the rest he exerts either no control, or very little. Spending and taxation is a good example.

Congress decides what levels of spending, taxation, and regulation to inflict on the nation. The president can veto bills, but that’s a blunt instrument because these days most spending is rolled into a single bill. If you don’t like part of it you have to veto the whole thing, and then you stand accused of shutting down the government. While Libertarians would be cheering, most would consider that a negative.

Yet the performance of the economy is affected primarily by those three things: spending, taxation, and regulation. And while the Executive Branch can cause plenty of mischief on the regulatory side, that’s mostly at the margins. Congress, and the Federal Reserve, are the big players in terms of the economy.

Secondly, changing an economy is a bit like steering a super-tanker. As they say, if you turn the wheel on Monday, the ship will change course on Wednesday. An economy’s worse. Changes you make in one year might take several years to really show up in the statistics.

Finally, an economy is a textbook example of a chaotic system. There are so many factors involved that it’s almost impossible to identify specific causes for its behavior.

One of the most specious memes ever produced by Occupy Democrats provides a list of supposed “accomplishments” attributed to President Obama. One of these was a reduction in the price of gasoline by about a third, and it’s true that did happen “on his watch.” Yet Obama did everything he could to increase the price of gasoline, including vetoing of the Keystone XL pipeline, refusing to lift the oil export ban, and his moratorium on new drilling.

Despite Obama’s actions, the price of gasoline did plummet, thanks primarily to changes in supply and demand outside the United States, and utterly beyond the control of any U.S. president. Nonetheless, here’s Occupy Democrats trying to score political points with low information voters by crediting Obama with a drop in gasoline prices.

By the same token, the fact that the financial meltdown happened to occur during the final few months of George W. Bush’s eight years, instead of in the first few months of Obama’s, means the world will forever blame Bush for the recession, and will credit Obama’s policies for the recovery—if you can call it that.

Yet if the stock market plunge had waited a few months, the whole thing would have happened on Obama’s watch, and Republicans would have blamed him for it. In fact, neither president should receive the credit or the blame. While there was plenty of blame to go around, most of it fell on Congress and its Community Reinvestment Act which forced bankers to make bad loans. And if you want to point the finger at a single villain, you could do worse than Congressman Barney Frank who was the primary cheerleader for those bad lending practices.

Credit for the recovery? Economies always recover after a recession. And typically, the worse the recession, the faster they recover, at least if government stays out of the way. The only reason they don’t recover, and morph into a depression, is if government tries to take control of the economy itself, which of course is what happened in the thirties. In fact, if you look at the last eleven expansions following recessions, they all produced more than 3% economic growth every year. Except for the last one, which was “on Obama’s watch.” Whatever forces were at work on the most recent recovery, they succeeded in making it the weakest in the last 60 years. If I were Obama, I’d be trying to distance myself from such lousy economic performance, not take credit for it.

But in fact Obama blamed the recession on Bush, whining that he (Obama) inherited it, and proudly taking credit for the tepid recovery.

Now the new administration’s doing the same thing. Trump’s latest talking point is that he “inherited a mess” and it’s going to take a lot of work to clean it up.

Oh, please. Stop with the blame game, both of you. We totally get that you want to accuse your predecessor of causing all the ills of today’s world, so when your own remedies fail to produce miracles, you can deflect blame. But it’s so un-presidential.

And by the way, didn’t you know the country was in a mess, Mr. Trump, before you took office? In fact, isn’t that why you ran? Didn’t your supporters vote for you specifically to clean it up?

So don’t play the “I’m shocked—shocked!” card, now that you’ve discovered the mess you kept promising to fix, actually exists.

Contrast Obama and Trump’s petty behavior with President Truman’s famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign on his Oval Office desk. It was a clear statement that Truman wasn’t going to blame anyone else for the problems of the world. He was President and the solutions were his responsibility.

I guess they don’t make politicians like they used to.


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