"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." --Mr. Micawber
It's a sad, and dangerous thing when governments lose sight of Micawber's rule, first enunciated in Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield" and demonstrated many times over since.
These days there's a Misery Index (the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates) to measure economic pain. This administration's Misery Index hasn't yet reached the highs achieved by Jimmy Carter's (a yearly average of 20.8 by 1980) but it's still in the double digits -- having hit a monthly rate of 12.8 in June of this year. The average over George W. Bush's two terms was only 8.1, and Bill Clinton's even lower at 7.8.
It seems misery has made an impressive comeback, which is not good news for this president -- or the country. For when a president is in trouble, so are the rest of us.
It's not a pretty thing to watch, a president twisting in the wind, as though caught in forces beyond his control, unable or unwilling to do anything except go on repeating the same mistakes. It takes courage to change course, or maybe just imagination. Whatever qualities he needs to break this dispiriting cycle, Barack Obama hasn't yet been able to summon them.
Instead, this president seems a prisoner of the failed Keynesian faith he's been following all along -- the conviction that the country can spend its way out of hard times. And when times get harder, just spend more.
Barack Obama's economic policies aren't so much a Democratic program as a Social Democratic one. And it becomes even clearer that the European-style agenda he's set out for the country isn't going to work. His $825 billion stimulus didn't do the trick -- despite his numbers games with all those jobs "created or saved" -- or just imagined.
The administration's own Troubled Assets Relief Program (now renamed the Public-Private Investment Partnership) hasn't turned things around any more than George W. Bush's did. It's just resulted in more toxic assets being transferred to the government, that is, to the people of the United States.
The full effects of Obamacare can't be known till it goes fully into effect, but it's already setting off tremors as businesses eliminate heath insurance for their workers in anticipation of those government-sponsored exchanges that are going to insure so many of us. Whether we like it or not.
The most crushing of the economic burdens Barack Obama has laid on the country has to be the dramatic increase in the national debt, which now has topped $14 trillion and is due to hit $15 trillion by the end of this month. That would be more than the country's whole gross domestic product -- the first time that's happened since the Second World War.
The quick-fixers forget that every government expenditure now being touted as a way to turn the economy around will have to paid for -- with interest -- in the future, which means it will take just that much longer for the economy to recover. Result: more misery. Much of it passed on to future generations, who will have to pay the debts we're running up now.
Like the gambler who doubles his bet every time he loses, feeling his luck has got to change some time, this president can't seem think of anything better to do than repeat his mistakes. As if he were under some kind of compulsion. A preference for ideology over results will have that effect on even the most intelligent of men. No wonder inflation waits to pounce while unemployment is proving untamable.
According to the August reports, not a single job was created in the whole national economy. Not a one. In terms of job creation, Barack Obama's record has been the worst since Herbert Hoover's.
During the first two and half years of this "recovery," employment has actually dropped a percentage point. No president of the United States other than Messrs. Hoover and Obama has presided over negative job growth for a comparable period. Mr. Obama's presidency is proving historic, all right, just not in the way he promised.
The best thing about judging a president in terms of the economy's performance on his watch is that the results are so clear. And the damning thing about judging a president in terms of his economic performance is that the results are so clear. As clear as the numbers. It's hard to see how any CEO of a major publicly held corporation could keep his job after compiling such a record.
Now the president has taken his show on the road, claiming (not for the first time) that this is all the fault of George W. Bush, or maybe those penny-pinching Republicans in Congress who insist on cutting spending instead of expanding it. He did indeed inherit an economic mess, but by now this economy is his. And the conviction grows that he's only made it worse. The buck can be passed only so long. In his case, that means only until November 6th of next year. Election Day.
"I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," President Obama told an interviewer last year. But there's nothing to keep him from being both -- a one-term president and mediocre.
So what's this failing, flailing president to do while there may still be time to save his administration? Not to mention the country's economy. He would do well to follow the example of another president who inherited an economic mess -- indeed, an economic disaster: the malaise of the Carter years.
Instead of trying to spend his way out of that hole, Ronald Reagan cut taxes across the board. (The Tax Reform Act of 1986 gave the country the lowest individual and corporate tax rates in the industrialized world.)
The numbers tell the story: Over the eight years of the Reagan presidency, some 20 million new jobs were created; the inflation rate dropped from 13.8 percent in 1980 to 4.1 percent in 1988; the unemployment rate fell from 7.2 percent to 5.5 percent while the gross national product rose by 26 percent. Not bad for an old B-movie actor.
Today few may remember the Reagan recession that preceded the Reagan recovery, but that was the price the country had to pay for a remarkably sustained period of prosperity. No gain without pain -- and the courage to risk it.
Why did Ronald Reagan succeed where Barack Obama is now failing? Because the Gipper had some qualities not yet evident in this president: a faith in the free market and the American people, and the patience to wait for that faith to be justified.
Barack Obama used to talk about being a transformative president. If he's serious about that, he would do well to look back at the country's last transformative president, and see just how he transformed dark times into Morning in America.
There's another presidential model Mr. Obama might want to consider: Bill Clinton. When his party lost control of both houses in the watershed congressional elections of 1994, Mr. Clinton did a 180-degree turn, proclaiming, "The era of big government is over." And his deeds matched his words. He worked with Republicans in Congress, however distasteful he may have found that prospect, to pass the North American Free Trade Act, reform a welfare system that was creating an American underclass, and enact a balanced budget.
Yes, I know Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. But he needs to be. And he needs to hurry. Time is fleeting. It may already have fled.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.