The Hypothetical President

The president has, by his own account, prevented countless disasters and tackled an incalculable number of problems that don't exist yet.

Plenty of Americans believe that the president's rhetoric runs counter to facts, but actually, it's the president's own counterfactual arguments that matter most.

Which is to say, nearly the entire case for President Barack Obama's second term is based on not what has happened but what could, would or might under different circumstances. Things, as you've surely heard from one official after the next, would have been a whole lot worse without the president's guidance.

When the Obama campaign intimates that Mitt Romney would have been less decisive to knock off Osama bin Laden—"Which path would Romney have taken?" a campaign video pretends to ponder—we aren't seeing anything new. This is another Obama hypothetical. Libyan intervention without congressional approval? We averted a future atrocity. The passage of Obamacare? We avoided higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancy. The president has, by his own account, prevented countless disasters and tackled an incalculable number of problems that don't exist yet.

Without a hypothetical, after all, there is no room for the false choice. Do you want an apocalypse or Cash for Clunkers?

Then there is economic policy. On this, we have Obama's shiny new 17-minute campaign documentary, "The Road We've Traveled," masterpiece of counterfactual scaremongering—brought to us by Academy Award winners Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") and Tom Hanks ("Bachelor Party").

The film's plot revolves around a brave soul—thrust into the unequaled historical turmoil (well, a bad recession)—who, with no thought to his own well-being, sends hundreds of billions of your dollars to politically favored institutions on the say-so of an economic theory. Without this very specific policy, deployed by this very president, the United States would have surely crumbled. (I know this because in "The Road We've Traveled," Hanks uses a grave tone to communicate this to me.)

If he's not acting, then Hanks is placing an immense amount of faith into the state. Put it this way: When the administration attached specifics to one of its counterfactual arguments—the stimulus—it made an embarrassing prediction about job gains with/without the policy. The administration didn't come close when it came to the number, yet the president said, "Here are some things I know for certain: In the absence of the stimulus, I think our recession would be much worse."

Not "might" or "may" but rather the president, like the fundamentalists and ideologues he pretends can only exist among his fanatical detractors, knows this for certain. Obama even stated around this time that there was "no disagreement" on the matter of his Keynesian stimulus—even though 200 economists took to the pages of The New York Times in an ad to say otherwise, and thousands of others disagreed.

Obama may be Nostradamus, but counterfactual arguments, fortunately, can be deployed both ways and by anyone. For instance: Doing nothing would have been more effective than doing something stupid. Without the stimulus, we'd be out of this mess already. Passing free market-oriented reforms would have allowed this recovery to resemble the "Reagan recovery" of the '80s. And so on.

As a political matter, "Things could have been worse, you know" is a far cry from "Hope." That's probably why the Obama campaign has settled on the slogan "Forward." That's not to say that the counterfactual tactic is unusual in politics—we are, after all, engaging in some serious guesswork—but rarely is the justification for re-election based almost entirely on a gigantic hypothetical. When there is no tangible accomplishment to grab, I guess you're left with few alternatives.

David Harsanyi is a columnist and senior reporter at Human Events. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.

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  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Vote Obama - at least we haven't seen a Zombie Apocalypse."

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Re-elect Obama - you ain't seen nothin' yet!"

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Vote Obama - because the teabaggers, racists and Wall Street whores refuse to get beyond political finger-pointing and name-calling!"

  • plu1959||

    "Vote for Obama - The Devil You Know!"

  • Arf?||

    "Vote for Obama - Or this kitten may die!"

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Oh, I was hoping to see the Sniper Kitten!

  • keddaw||

    "Vote for Obama - he has the power to have killed without evidence or oversight."

  • keddaw||

    "Vote for Obama - he has the power to have YOU killed without evidence or oversight."

    Don't type while eating a sandwich!

  • R C Dean||

    "Vote Obama. Because Fuck You, Prole."

  • Killazontherun||

    Vote Obama. The Only Man Smart Enough To Understand The New Medical Device Regulations You're Heart Valve Depends Upon!

  • Loki||

    Vote Obama - for the children. You don't hate children, do you?

  • Pip||

    Vote Obama, racist bastard.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Why yes, I do indeed hate children. Not hate them in a "death to the infidel" sort of way, but in the way I hate Taco Bell, as in I take every reasonable measure to avoid them.

  • newshutz||

    do you avoid Philadelphia, also?

  • AlmightyJB||

    You have to re-elect him to see what he will do.

  • plu1959||

    Good one.

  • DonTaylor||

    No, Democrats will find boxes of missing ballots and discover voting cards that have missing chads or hanging chads or something that didn't count Democrat votes.

    Did anyone other than dead people, foreigners and union member forced on buses to polling places vote for Jimmie Carter?

  • Barack Obama||

    There are some who say I have no accomplishments to campaign on. Let me be clear: hamstringing the entire US economy while simultaneously expanding exective power, all while lying through my teeth at every turn is a huge accomplishment.

  • The Other Kevin||

    Getting elected the first time was a pretty big accomplishment. He could run on that.

  • plu1959||

    Like a business-success guru whose only success has been in marketing himself as a business-success guru.

  • DJF||

    Obama has written two books about himself.

  • RBS||

    I can't wait for the Ron Popeil narrated late night ads.

  • o3||

    i vote for whomever has the biggest sign cause obviously they care the mostest.

  • ant1sthenes||

    None of us is surprised by this.

  • o3||

    beats listening to their stories

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    That reminds me of this time when... WHACK! Thud! (P.H.O.D. offline.)

  • R C Dean||

    Sounds to me like Obama is running a faith-based campaign, one that relies on assertions that are not subject to falsification.

    He may just be smarter than he looks.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    I'm reminded of the neocons who constantly bombard us with demands for more security powers because of what might happen.

  • DJF||

    The terrorist hate us for our freedom so we must take away those freedoms so they won’t hate us.

  • ||

    Bingo. :)

  • plu1959||

    If he's not acting, then Hanks is placing an immense amount of faith into the state.

    And the average American places an immense amount of faith in celebrities who don't know shit about shit.

  • Average Soccer Mom||

    You mean I shouldn't just vote for whoever Oprah tells me to?

  • Drake||

    If only the Democrats had controlled both Houses of Congress, some really good stuff would have happened.

  • DonTaylor||

    You missed the miracle of Universal Health Care, and the liberation of Afganistan and the fact that N Korea didn't bomb Japan, a bunch of Christian Fundamentalists didn't spread smallpox throughout NY city and the moon didn't crash into Lake Michigan.

    In fact, Hitler saved Germany, Sherman saved Atlanta and if you put aluminum foil on your head you will block the spy waves that come out of you TV.

  • newshutz||

    Methinks, thine irony detector is broken.

  • T||

    But I don't see any tigers around, do you?

  • Arf?||

    Just this one.

  • Arf?||

  • Doctor Whom||

    "Here are some things I know for certain: In the absence of the stimulus, I think our recession would be much worse."

    I know for certain that I think I'm convinced.

  • T||

    Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Another Bierce fan? Cool.

  • T||

    I've contemplated using Gassalasca Jape as a pseudonym.

  • Jerryskids||

    But Obama is so eloquent!

    ELOQUENCE, n. The art of orally persuading fools that white is the color that it appears to be. It includes the gift of making any color appear white.

  • Loki||

    I know for certain that I think Obama's an idiotic tool.

    I noticed that too. I don't think he knows the difference between knowing something and thinking something. IOW he literally believes his opinions are facts.

  • 88 Slide||

    This is the Progressive ideology in a nut shell... when your arguements are based on feelings and emotions the facts and reality have very little relevance.

  • Moogle||

    The scientific Progressives are the worst. They tart up all sorts of tortured rationalizations for their ideological views, claim to be part of the "reality based" community, and then deliver "uh, tax more and spend more" as their highfalutin solution to all things.

    Why, yes, I *do* want to hear about macroeconomic theories from someone who spends their life tracking the transmission of cryptosporidium between species of parrots via their* feces!

    *The parrot's feces, not the scientist's.

  • T o n y||

    Science is not optional.

    As a practical matter you're best served by listening to those who respect science and not those who bash it when it disagrees with their stupid childish religious or ideological bullshit.

  • cw||

    So those scientists who call bullshit on the so-called "consensus" are just hacks/ideologues/whatever ad hominem you can think of, right?

  • sarcasmic||

    Obama may be Nostradamus, but counterfactual arguments, fortunately, can be deployed both ways and by anyone. For instance: Doing nothing would have been more effective than doing something stupid. Without the stimulus, we'd be out of this mess already.

    Except that there is a bit of logic in that argument.

    People who tout stimulus always leave out step 1: Remove money from the economy.

    What happens when you remove money from the economy? It slows down.

    Step 2 is to pay government bureaucrats who produce nothing of value to perform step 3 of doling that money out to their politically connected cronies.

    None of which has any net positive effect, especially when factoring the opportunity cost of the money that could have been put to another use.

  • Jeff||

    They're only removing money from the economy because money doesn't know where to go without Top Men directing it there.

  • Moogle||

    Top. Men.

  • ||

    Step one isn't necessary with a central bank, which was more or less the idea behind QE near as I can tell. Of course, then you have credit-distortion issues which are a totally different can of worms.

    IMO, the stimulus's main negative impact right now is preventing a proper restructuring of the economy along the lines of actual consumer demand. I predict an apparent-recovery in the next three years, followed by a "new" (really, just delayed) crash as the structure of production is revealed to be out of whack with demand when the Fed's rates tick back up.

    YMMV, of course.

  • sarcasmic||

    Step one isn't necessary with a central bank

    A central bank removes money from the economy by diluting its value.

  • ||

    But the transfer of funds and information is not instantaneous. Parties given access to inflationary funds first are able to make purchases before the purchasing power is entirely diluted. If people had perfect information and the injection of funds was totally proportional, inflationary measures would have no effect- it can only function by working in a non-equitable fashion.

    It's this warping of the economy that is the real problem with stimulus funds- perfect inflation with perfect knowledge would have the same effect as allowing further division of monetary units (halfpennies and such). But the economy-"boosting" function of inflation only occurs because it can create winners and loser by having non-uniform distribution of funds over time, and since the initial windfall isn't necessarily linked to consumer demand the structure of production has to collapse and correct eventually. I'm not so worried about price inflation, since individuals and markets can adapt to using different prices; I'm worried about the fact that our economy hasn't had a chance to properly restructure. And if things start to correct/collapse again, the political class will try to use inflation again and wind up delaying any real or substantial recovery.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    "This reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole in your head. Remember that?"

    "That would have worked if you hadn't stopped me."

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    "through"

  • newshutz||

    "This reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole in your head. Remember that?"

    I hate it when that happens.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    The bin Laden thing touches on one of my many pet peeves about politicians: whenever a president launches a raid or a war or something of the sort, everybody goes on about how "courageous" the decision was.

    Horsefeathers. What would have happened to Obama if the bin Laden mission failed? Would he have been shot full of holes? Held hostage by bin Laden's four wives?

    Would he have executed for his failure? Would he have been fired? Fined? Anything?

    He would have been embarrassed. That's it. Well, boo fucking hoo. A politician with egg on his face; gee, that's so unprecedented!

  • Anonymous Coward||

    The bin Laden thing touches on one of my many pet peeves about politicians: whenever a president launches a raid or a war or something of the sort, everybody goes on about how "courageous" the decision was.

    Capturing Bin Laden alive would have been even more courageous, but then, he would be able to tell people how he was a CIA asset who went off the plantation and that America actually helped create this terminally ill Saudi boogeyman we've managed to waste billions of dollars and thousands of lives to stop.

    Then people might wonder why America is supporting such boogeymen in the first place.

    Nope, best to just silence him forever.

  • Moogle||

    (squints)

    Not sure if satirical or just insane.

  • wareagle||

    everything with this guy is based on creating situations where someone has to prove a negative. No one can say that things would have been worse without the stimulus but that is the Obama way - straw men when possible, unfalsifiable theories when not and hope that people are too stupid to figure it out.

  • Harvard||

    Tony's not gonna like this. Nosiree. Not at all. None of it.

  • Moogle||

    No prob. It can be conclusively proven he died in the last episode of the Sopranos.

  • Anomalous||

    As Tacitus said about the emperor Galba, all would have thought him capable of governing, had he not governed.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    I remember the Reagan Recovery, with no stimulus, and inflation going down. And the Russians concerned because we had a crazy fucker in the White House. Good times...

  • Concerned Citizen||

    And the Rise of the Yuppies, and the creation of the homeless, two things that drove the lefties nuts. Fuck the lefties.

  • Moogle||

    Clearly the Obama Administration have initiated the Backstep Program where they can travel back in time up to seven days to prevent catastrophes.

    Anyone who disagrees with this is an anarchist neocon who hates ponies and children.

  • Sevo||

    Well, there hasn't been a single tiger on my back porch since he was elected!

  • ||

    "Barack Obama: The Story" by David Maraniss. Vanity Fair published excerpts of the book, which will be published in June.

    Wow, a book about a sitting president's "story", publishing date set five months before Election Day.

    Doesn't this count as impermissible electioneering?

  • ||

    In all fairness, it's not enough to live in a fantasy world where everything you do is a heroic accomplishment for truth and justice - every politician does that. It's when all the parade attendees stand there staring at your nakedness and praising your fine new suit of clothes that this type of rationalizing becomes distressing. Unwarranted grandiosity is a feature of every narcissist, but most narcissists don't have 150 million people indulging their grandiose delusions. I'm waiting for the moment if/when Obama and Romney meet at the debate hall and the first question posed is "Mr. Romney, when did you stop beating your wife?", whereupon Romney will reply "That's not a fair question - you never asked my opponent that" and the moderator will turn to Obama and ask "Mr. President, when do you think your opponent stopped beating his wife?"

  • T o n y||

    Almost everything that matters these days are things that don't happen. The human brain is unfortunately evolved in such a way as to celebrate Bush more for his failure to prevent a 9/11 than Obama for his success in preventing a hypothetical one.

    Bush had no such luck when his economy tanked. There is an empirical narrative of events that speaks to the success of the Bush and Obama economic policies in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as to their flaws and limitations.

    As a political matter, "Things could have been worse" is, indeed, a far cry from "Hope." But pretending like things are great would be insulting to the many voters still suffering from the effects of the Bush recession, so it's simply a statement of fact.

    Which is unlike the infinitely more vacuous policy prescription claims Bailey makes here. How is "things could have been better if only [insert ideological wishlist] had happened" any better?

  • ||

    Apparently Tony thinks that by dropping words like "evolution" and "empirical" his illogical comments will have a relevant scientific tinge. And then drop in a "vacuous" for good measure to demolish the author's argument.

    Despite all those big words, its still nothing more than political claptrap that says nothing. Makes me wonder if Tony is on the payroll as an advisor to some politico, because his meaningless musings have the built in non sequiturs and circular reasoning that is all the rage in politics these days... or more likely, since the beginning of humanity.

  • Jerryskids||

    How is "things could have been better if only [insert ideological wishlist] had happened" any better?

    I think that is what the penultimate paragraph of the story hinted at - it's not. Contrafactual arguments are rather meaningless unless they are backed up by sound logic and reasoning.

    You can argue that libertarians employ unsound logic and reasoning, but Obama offers no logic or reasoning whatsoever. He simply asserts unfalsifiable opinions as fact.

    As did anyone who said Obama couldn't be any worse than Bush. Or thinks they know Romney can't be any worse than Obama.

  • joy||

    The president has, by his own account, prevented countless disasters http://www.petwinkel.com/pet-polo-c-38.html and tackled an incalculable number of problems that don't exist yet.

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