One of the sadder passages in Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas relates what happened when, on February 13, only twenty-four days after taking office, “the Obamas turned around and went back to Chicago.” The idea was to recapture a week- end of normalcy amid the chaos and strangeness of Washington, D.C.
The key mistake most people make when they look at Washington—and the key misconception that characters like Abramoff would lead you to—is seeing Washington as a cash economy. It’s a gift economy. That’s why firms divert money into paying lobbyists rather than spending every dollar on campaign contributions. Campaign contributions are part of the cash economy. Lobbyists are hired because they understand how to participate in the gift economy.
President Obama’s poll numbers are weaker than ever. The political betting markets give him a less than 50 percent chance of being reelected in 2012. Why? It’s that unemployment is stuck above 9 percent. It’s that a double-dip recession is a real possibility. It’s that the market seems to dive on most days that end in “y.” Any account of what he has done wrong, or what he could do right, needs to provide a persuasive case of how the White House could have done more to promote an economic recovery over the last three years, or could do more to accelerate one now.