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The Wages of Competence: Obama, the Economy, and the 2010 Midterm Elections


M. Stephen Weatherford is professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written on presidential leadership in economic policy making and on economic policy coordination between the United States and Japan.


The financial crisis, the deep recession, and the Democrats' huge losses in the 2010 midterm election, have focused attention on President Barack Obama's economic policy leadership and the framing of the economy as a campaign issue. In this article, I evaluate three alternative explanations for the Democrats' showing on the economy: the severity of the financial meltdown and the resulting recession; the president's key economic initiatives, the stimulus and the banking reform; and the actions of the Republican opposition in Congress and the highly mobilized conservative populism at the grass roots. In a presidential system, the attention of the public and media naturally focuses on the chief executive, and the temptation is strong to blame the president if the voters reject his party in a referendum election. The detailed case histories of Obama's economic policies, however, reveal only a few missed opportunities, and overall the administration's program delivered consistently positive economic results in the face of the exceptionally severe challenges of financial crisis and potential Depression. That the policies did not make a clear impression on the public and command a correspondingly positive electoral response is attributable less to the mistakes of the administration than to the strategic success of its opponents at limiting the president's legislative accomplishments and framing the public's interpretation of his program.