By TIMOTHY EGAN
NEW YORK TIMES
If I were one of the big corporate donors who bankrolled the Republican tide that carried into office more than 50 new Republicans in the House, I would be wary of what you just bought.
For no matter your view of President Obama, he effectively saved capitalism. And for that, he paid a terrible political price.
Suppose you had $100,000 to invest on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated. Why bet on a liberal Democrat? Here’s why: the presidency of George W. Bush produced the worst stock market decline of any president in history. The net worth of American households collapsed as Bush slipped away. And if you needed a loan to buy a house or stay in business, private sector borrowing was dead when he handed over power.
As of election day, Nov. 2, 2010, your $100,000 was worth about $177,000 if invested strictly in the NASDAQ average for the entirety of the Obama administration, and $148,000 if bet on the Standard & Poors 500 major companies. This works out to returns of 77 percent and 48 percent.
But markets, though forward-looking, are not considered accurate measurements of the economy, and the Great Recession skewed the Bush numbers. O.K. How about looking at the big financial institutions that keep the motors of capitalism running — banks and auto companies?
The banking system was resuscitated by $700 billion in bailouts started by Bush (a fact unknown by a majority of Americans), and finished by Obama, with help from the Federal Reserve. It worked. The government is expected to break even on a risky bet to stabilize the global free market system. Had Obama followed the populist instincts of many in his party, the underpinnings of big capitalism could have collapsed. He did this without nationalizing banks, as other Democrats had urged.
Saving the American auto industry, which has been a huge drag on Obama’s political capital, is a monumental achievement that few appreciate, unless you live in Michigan. After getting their taxpayer lifeline from Obama, both General Motors and Chrysler are now making money by making cars. New plants are even scheduled to open. More than 1 million jobs would have disappeared had the domestic auto sector been liquidated.
“An apology is due Barack Obama,” wrote The Economist, which had opposed the $86 billion auto bailout. As for Government Motors: after emerging from bankruptcy, it will go public with a new stock offering in just a few weeks, and the United States government, with its 60 percent share of common stock, stands to make a profit. Yes, an industry was saved, and the government will probably make money on the deal — one of Obama’s signature economic successes.
Interest rates are at record lows. Corporate profits are lighting up boardrooms; it is one of the best years for earnings in a decade.
All of the above is good for capitalism, and should end any serious-minded discussion about Obama the socialist. But more than anything, the fact that the president took on the structural flaws of a broken free enterprise system instead of focusing on things that the average voter could understand explains why his party was routed on Tuesday. Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.
“We have done things that people don’t even know about,” Obama told Jon Stewart. Certainly. The three signature accomplishments of his first two years — a health care law that will make life easier for millions of people, financial reform that attempts to level the playing field with Wall Street, and the $814 billion stimulus package — have all been recast as big government blunders, rejected by the emerging majority.
But each of them, in its way, should strengthen the system. The health law will hold costs down, while giving millions the chance at getting care, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Financial reform seeks to prevent the kind of meltdown that caused the global economic collapse. And the stimulus, though it drastically raised the deficit, saved about 3 million jobs, again according to the CBO. It also gave a majority of taxpayers a one-time cut — even if 90 percent of Americans don’t know that, either.
Of course, nobody gets credit for preventing a plane crash. “It could have been much worse!” is not a rallying cry. And, more telling, despite a meager uptick in job growth this year, the unemployment rate rose from 7.6 percent in the month Obama took office to 9.6 today.
Billions of profits, windfalls in the stock market, a stable banking system — but no jobs.
Of course, the big money interests who benefited from Obama’s initiatives have shown no appreciation. Obama, as a senator, voted against the initial bailout of AIG, the reckless insurance giant. As president, he extended them treasury loans at a time when economists said he must — or risk further meltdown. Their response was to give themselves $165 million in executive bonuses, and funnel money to Republicans this year.
Money flows one way, to power, now held by the party that promises tax cuts and deregulation — which should please big business even more.
President Franklin Roosevelt also saved capitalism, in part by a bank “holiday” in 1933, at a time when the free enterprise system had failed. Unlike Obama, he was rewarded with midterm gains for his own party because a majority liked where he was taking the country. The bank holiday was incidental to a larger public works campaign.
Obama can recast himself as the consumer’s best friend, and welcome the animus of Wall Street. He should hector the companies sitting on piles of cash but not hiring new workers. For those who do hire, and create new jobs, he can offer tax incentives. He should finger the financial giants for refusing to clean up their own mess in the foreclosure crisis. He should point to the long overdue protections for credit card holders that came with reform.
And he should veto, veto, veto any bill that attempts to roll back some of the basic protections for people against the institutions that have so much control over their lives – insurance companies, Wall Street and big oil.
They will whine a fierce storm, the manipulators of great wealth. A war on business, they will claim. Not even close. Obama saved them, and the biggest cost was to him.