Jonathan Chait

Who "Owns" the Economy?

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One of the cliches bouncing around constantly is that President Obama "owns the economy." Pay attention to the way Karl Rove uses the phrase here, seguing from a weird description of a bakery closing to blaming it on Obama:

when the restaurant closes Sunday, 14 people will lose their jobs. Its patrons will lose a favorite joint, and the neighborhood will lose some sense of community.

There are worse hardship cases in America, but this one is bad enough. It is in large part the result of the economy that Mr. Obama owns.

"Owns" is a political term. It means that the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis now drag down Obama, because as a simple political fact, many voters hold the president responsible for the state of the economy. Rove is using the term to suggest that Obama has actually caused mass unemployment. That, of course, is absurd. The 2008 economic crisis caused massive havoc across the world.

Yet there's a slippery way in which discussions of the perception of Obama's responsibility for high unemployment meld into suggestions that he actually does hold responsibility. It's not clear that Rove is capable of understanding the distinction between political perception and actual reality. But his conflation of the two concepts is merely a more extreme manifestation of a general habit in political commentary, lazily avoiding any clear distinction between perception and reality. The phrase "owns the economy" has become one of the most banal expressions of the dysfunction of political discourse.

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