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A Presidential Malpractice Complaint

Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter recently challenged his readers to, specifically and rationally, “identify where [President] Obama has been a poor decision-maker.” Or, as the column’s title put it, “You Think Obama’s Been a Bad President? Prove It.”

My view, which I believe is based on specific and rational reasons, is that if there were such a thing as presidential malpractice, Obama would find himself the target of a lawsuit. So I am going to accept Alter’s challenge, right here. Let’s call it my malpractice complaint against the president.

Count 1: The president has no coherent plan to address the housing market, which is at the root of our economic problems. Nearly three years into this administration, there is no policy in place to get people out of houses they can’t afford and to get those homes into the hands of people who can, initially, afford to buy them at their current values and who would then either spend money on improvements and furnishings, or would lease the properties to people (maybe even the current occupants) who can pay the rent. Instead, the administration has tried to keep as many people as possible in homes where they aren’t paying the mortgage – homes that they are destined to eventually lose, giving them no incentive to maintain or improve the properties.

Housing cannot get better until the market finds its bottom, or what economists call the market-clearing price. This administration has done everything possible to delay that eventuality.

Further, the Obama administration inherited Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in receivership, and still has no plan at all for how to move forward in financing the housing industry. The government’s handling, or lack of handling, of these government-sponsored enterprises represents a total abdication of presidential responsibility.

Count 2: The president is undermining the banking industry just as it was recovering from the housing-induced credit crisis that triggered the recession. Obama inherited a controversial but effective program that stabilized the financial industry at a time, in late 2008, when nobody knew which institutions were solvent. One of the administration’s economic successes was that it allowed the program to continue. In fact, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) even produced a net profit for the Treasury. So what did Obama’s administration do once the banks were back on their feet?

Just before Labor Day, it sued 17 of them for over $120 billion.

The administration is keen to blame the banks for creating mortgage securities that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were panting to buy during the housing boom, even after the GSEs had been warned by their regulators that they did not know how to manage the attendant risks. Banks, along with the GSEs and many others, believed the myth that housing prices could never go down; thus, any loan backed by a house was safe. This belief was folly, but the banks were no more responsible for it than anyone else.

Count 3: The president has no energy policy except whatever is politically expedient. Is the Obama administration for or against developing oil? Or developing natural gas resources? Under what circumstances?

Nobody knows. The administration treats all energy questions on an ad hoc basis, depending on the politics of the moment. It has been consistent only in advocating lavish federal funding for nonconventional energy sources, which can neither meet demand nor compete economically in the market. John Rowe, head of the Exelon utility company, paraphrased an old industry truism about the country’s energy policy at a conference in March: “If it produces, tax it. If it produces too fast, regulate it. And if it doesn't produce at all, subsidize it.”

Even worse, two years after canceling the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Obama has yet to suggest what we should do with the tons of radioactive material accumulating at sites around the country, some of which are near densely populated areas. All the ingredients are present for a disaster, but the administration is content to play the odds by betting that nothing will go wrong until Obama is out of office.

Count 4: The president has failed to push for a rational and humane immigration policy. The current administration has, thankfully, avoided mass roundups of illegal immigrants, which sunder families and produce heart-rending scenes on television news. It also opposes some of the worst state-level anti-immigrant legislation. But the president has not pushed for legislation that would create a legal avenue for foreigners who want to work here and for employers who have work that American citizens are demonstrably uninterested in doing waiting to be done. Obama only sporadically mentions the DREAM Act, which would at least alleviate suffering for foreign-born youth, even without addressing their parents’ needs.

Count 5: Leaders set goals; Obama picks targets. The president operates in a rhetorical zero-sum world in which someone’s gain always must always be someone else’s loss. It is the rhetoric of the community organizer seeking to unite a defined group of people against a perceived common opponent. It might work in an apartment building to organize tenants against an absentee landlord, but at the presidential level, it puts the president at odds with the centers of influence whose trust and support he needs to make things better for everyone. The president seems perplexed as to why business lacks confidence to invest and expand, even though he has spent much of his term alternately attacking bankers (“fat cats”), investors (“speculators”), energy companies, insurance companies, and any business owner earning more than $200,000 per year (“millionaires and billionaires”). This is not the manner of a leader. It is the manner of a bully.

I’ll give him a pass on foreign policy, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guantanamo facility, the failure to stand up to Iran’s regime after its sham 2009 election or to moderate Chinese trade and human rights policies. This is not because Obama’s policies are beyond criticism, but because these are issues that have bedeviled multiple presidents and which have no easy solutions.

Still, in the end, Obama is a failed president. It ought not to be a surprise. This was a man with no track record as an executive or as a legislator, who was elected on the basis of a vacuous slogan of “hope” and “change,” who has no leadership skills and who is demonstrably in policy water far over his head.

So maybe what we have is as much a case of voter malpractice as presidential malpractice. In that case I’ll accept liability while pleading mitigating circumstances. I became an unenthusiastic Obama voter in 2008 after Sen. John McCain responded irrationally to the financial crisis. Now that Obama must run on, or from, his own record, I won’t make that mistake again, for specific and rational reasons. Neither will many other people.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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