On the matter of Barack Obama and the performance of the U.S. economy, the aptest metaphor is anatine: We aren’t swimming in gold like Scrooge McDuck, and we haven’t blasted the beak off our face with a shotgun like Daffy Duck, but instead limp along like what the president is: a lame duck. Spare me the technicalities about how President Obama isn’t officially a lame duck until after the election; we aren’t officially in recession, either, but 0.5 percent annualized growth — the most recent figure — is close enough. How should we judge President Obama’s economic record? There are two ways to go about that: First, from the point of view of people who understand at least a little about economics; second, from the point of view of Barack Obama. We Americans maintain a superstitious, priest-king attitude toward presidents and economies. Just as moral and religious defects in the holy chieftains of old were thought to be the source of droughts and crop failures, we take weakness in the economy to be the result of presidential flaws: He didn’t “care about people like us” enough, he followed the wrong policies, listened to the wrong people, etc. That’s mainly not true.
The most important factors shaping the economic performance of the United States, or that of any advanced country, isn’t policy, but events, from developments abroad to entrepreneurship and innovation at home. The 1990s didn’t boom because Bill Clinton pursued a radically different economic agenda from that of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush: He ran on “time for a change” but more or less stayed the course, thanks in no small part to Newt Gingrich and the 1994 election. The 1990s boomed because the development of the personal computer and other forms of information technology, supercharged by the growth of the web, launched an extraordinary period of investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen (whose Netscape browsers brought the web to the masses), the development teams at Ericsson and Nokia, and a few million Americans who invested enthusiastically in everything marked “dot-com” had a lot more to do with the economy of the 1990s than Bill Clinton did. Likewise, the rough spots of that era (such as the Asian currency crisis) weren’t the president’s doing, either. There is no mystical connection between presidents, GDP growth, employment, and wages.

Policy of course has a non-trivial effect on economic events, but the most important policy choices that affect the economy in the near term don’t come from the White House: They come from Congress, from the courts, and from the Federal Reserve. A lot of what we think of as Reaganomics had relatively little to do with Reagan: Important deregulation efforts (airlines, oil prices, telecommunications, trucking and transit) had been enacted by Congresses before Reagan ever took office; in fact, Reagan pandered to the Teamsters by promising to delay deregulatory efforts pressed by the Jimmy Carter administration. What we used to call “the phone company” was broken up by the courts in 1984 as part of an effort that began years before he took office. Reagan’s tax reforms were enormously important, of course, both in terms of their real financial effects and their long-term psychological effects. President Obama’s term in office was preceded by a housing crisis and a subsequent recession for which he was as much to blame as anyone then in government — which is to say, not very much. The housing and banking policies that resulted in the financial crisis were enacted by politicians of both parties over a span of many decades, from the housing schemes of the 1930s to the creation of Fannie and Freddie to changes in financial practices originating in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. Senator Obama did not have much to say about these until after the fact. He is a practically Delphic oracle of hindsight. RELATED: Obama’s Legacy Is Already Collapsing President Obama insists — straight-facedly — that in the context of a wrenching fiscal crisis, the United States under his leadership performed better than any major economy in modern history. That isn’t even close to being true, of course. Obama’s presidency will coincide with a remarkably weak recovery, with GDP essentially treading water. His presidency will be the first in modern times to fail to coincide with at least one year of 3 percent economic growth. It has teetered on the edge of recession, and may very well end in formal recession. (George H. W. Bush was thrown out of office in protest of a recession that did not technically begin until the first quarter of the Clinton administration; it wasn’t the economy, it was boredom.) Wages remain stagnant, and the rate of work-force participation is worryingly low.