President Obama “prevented an atrocity” in Libya, but no one’s giving him credit. Why? “Because he prevented an atrocity,” writes Michael Grunwald in Time. It’s called the “counterfactual problem:” “It's hard to get credit for avoiding a disaster when it's impossible to prove the disaster would have happened without you.” And that pretty much sums up the Obama presidency so far. “He is the counterfactual president,” and as Barney Frank pointed out, “‘It would have been even worse without me’ ain't much of a bumper sticker.”
Obama took office with what Rahm Emanuel called a “gift bag” of atrocities to confront, from “the worst economy in 80 years” to a pair of unpopular wars. The “most extreme example” of his counterfactual presidency is the $787 billion stimulus package—a “tremendous success” in preventing a depression, but one that no one notices because “unemployment is still awful.” Would things be better for Obama with better messaging? Unlikely, given “sky-high unemployment.” But Obama can, perhaps, thank his predecessor’s “gift bag” for getting him elected in the first place.