POLITICS

Many commentators have joked that the president's campaign strategy sounds like, "it could have been worse." But that's actually a pretty good description of his record, especially on economic issues, writes MoneyShow's Howard R. Gold.

The conventions are over and the fall presidential campaign has begun. The big issue, of course, is the economy, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hopes to ride dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance to victory in November.

There’s ample reason for dissatisfaction—unemployment has remained over 8% for 43 months, while unemployment and underemployment together are above 14%. The workforce participation rate is at its lowest in 31 years, while personal income is back to the same level it was in 1995.

That’s enough for many to declare this president a failure. But is he? He inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with job losses of 800,000 a month when he took office and a Dow Jones Industrial Average that fell below 7,000. So, he was dealt a very bad hand. But how well did he play it?

Here’s my report card on the president’s economic performance. I’ve tried hard to be thorough and fair, but I’m sure I’ll annoy supporters and critics alike. That comes with the territory, so here goes:

Automotive Bailout
In early 2009, the administration put General Motors (GM) and Chrysler through a managed bankruptcy, using funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Fiat bought Chrysler and GM got new management. (The Bush administration gave the two $17.6 billion in bridge loans to keep them afloat.)

Now, at an estimated net cost of $25 billion to taxpayers (after sales of stock the government held in the two companies), some 1.4 million jobs were saved in the auto industry and its suppliers, according to the nonpartisan Center for Automotive Research. Both companies are profitable, sales have grown nicely over the last couple of years, and they’re creating jobs in the US.

Manufacturing has been one of the few bright spots in the economy, and that wouldn’t have happened if GM and Chrysler were liquidated, which was a real possibility. Grade: A

Housing
The Obama administration’s efforts to turn around the moribund housing market had only a modest effect. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) together helped 1.9 million homeowners out of 9 million who were eligible.

We’ll never know if that was because the administration was too cautious or the problems of the housing market were too deep—or both—but the results were subpar. Grade: D...and would be F if not for the 1.9 million who were helped.

Banking
The president didn’t have to deal with the crisis President Bush faced, but Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had to nurse the big banks back to health and rebuild confidence in the financial system. His chosen vehicle: stress tests, which measured banks’ capacity to withstand very bad (if not the absolute worst) economic scenarios.

Once the banks passed, they raised $150 billion in fresh capital in the bull market that began in 2009. That helped them repay taxpayers and meet stricter capital requirements. Many European banks didn’t do that—a big reason ours are in better shape now. Total estimated cost of TARP, as of March: $32.1 billion (not including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The administration also championed the Dodd-Frank Act, an unwieldy 2,000-page hodgepodge. Though it contained some good things (higher capital requirements, greater ability to liquidate troubled financial institutions, tighter regulation on derivatives), it also missed an opportunity to streamline the government’s financial regulation, and some of its provisions may have deterred lending.

Grades: TARP A, Dodd-Frank C-, and I take some points off for lack of prosecution of bankers. Total Banking Grade: C

NEXT: Stimulus and Spending

Tickers Mentioned: Tickers: GM