Of all the generally accepted claims that have been repeated throughout this presidential campaign, perhaps the most false is the assertion that President Obama was dealt a tough hand on the economy. In truth, Obama was dealt a winning hand; he simply had no idea how to play it.
In sports, most coaches don’t want to replace a legend. From that starting point, there’s almost nowhere to go but down. A far better situation is to take over from a losing coach, at which point there’s almost nowhere to go but up.
It’s the same with presidents and the economy. The best situation for a president is to inherit a bad economy, wait for the nearly inevitable recovery to occur, and then take credit for the predictable gains.
As Obama would be the first to tell people, he didn’t follow a legend. He inherited a bad economy, from which there was almost nowhere to go but up. Politically speaking, he was dealt beautiful cards. But if you play it poorly enough, it’s possible to lose even with a great hand.
Just compare Obama with FDR, another Democrat who fell into the envious situation of inheriting a bad economy from an unpopular Republican president. In 1936, the year in which FDR first ran for reelection, the gross domestic product (GDP) grew a whopping 13.1 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. So far in 2012, as Obama is running for reelection, real annualized GDP growth has been a puny 1.9 percent — less than a sixth of what it was under FDR. That’s according to the federal government’s own figures (see “Percent change from preceding period”).
In other words, both FDR and Obama inherited bad economies that were poised to get better (although the economy of the Great Depression wasn’t poised to rebound as quickly). As such, both were dealt winning hands. FDR played his hand well and, on the wave of a revitalized economy, won reelection in a landslide. But for Obama, even George W. Bush has proven to be a tough act to follow.