- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

With the economy still teetering, Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a high-stakes game of blame fixing, all with an eye to preparing voters to pin the blame on the donkey - or elephant - before the next election.

The battle spilled out onto the House floor last week, when Rep. Todd Akin went on the offensive, pointedly accusing Rep. Barney Frank of causing the housing collapse that spurred the current economic tailspin. The accusations drew an indignant 1,300-word press release response from Mr. Frank, who said Republicans were distorting history and shifting blame to cover their own failures.

For his part, President Obama has been studious in stressing that he and his administration were handed a crisis not of their making.

“We inherited a big mess,” the president said earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, as he sought to address a national unemployment rate that surpassed 8 percent that morning.

The Obama administration says the recession is in large part the result of the housing bubble and what they say was an underregulated financial services sector. Many believe the housing bubble began in the 1990s under former President Bill Clinton when he expanded eligibility for homeownership to low-income earners who ended up getting a large number of subprime mortgages.

Mr. Akin, the Republican congressman from Missouri, goes further, arguing that Mr. Frank blocked Republicans’ efforts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac earlier this decade, and so the Massachusetts Democrat deserves much of the blame.

Citing comments Mr. Frank made in a 2003 New York Times article pushing back against new regulations proposed by Republicans, Mr. Akin said the Democrat was wrong when he said Fannie and Freddie “are not facing any kind of financial crisis.”

“Anybody can be wrong. Some people can be terribly wrong. And in this case, this mistake has turned the entire world economy upside down,” Mr. Akin charged on the House floor Wednesday.

Mr. Frank called that “Republican amnesia.” He said Republicans controlled Congress for most of former President George W. Bush’s tenure and should have been able to pass whatever controls they wanted to regulate Fannie and Freddie to reel in subprime lending. Instead, nothing was passed.

He said that’s because Mr. Bush, seeking to take credit for boosting minority homeownership, “pushed for even more subprime lending.”

Some Republicans are content to let the blame for the past drop, but Mr. Akin said he is fighting the past because it will matter in the future.

“My concern is, OK, so they mess the economy up for the next couple of years and come around and say, oh, it’s Bush’s fault,” Mr. Akin said in a telephone interview two days after his floor speech. “I don’t want to just concede that point and two years from now, when the economy’s in the pits and people are starving to death, they blame the Republicans.”

But Democrats may have the upper hand, with Mr. Obama leading their party.

Analysts said it’s too early to saddle Mr. Obama with blame for the tumbling economy, and said his claim that the crisis is not of his making is and will continue to be valid for the foreseeable future.

“If we don’t start seeing an improvement a year from now, and the 2010 congressional elections [are approaching], if they stand as a referendum on Obama and his policies, that may be a clear inflection point,” said Todd Zywicki, a law and economics professor at George Mason University.

“My guess would be people give him the benefit of the doubt until then,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating has remained high, between 60 percent and 70 percent, despite the onslaught of grim news from Wall Street and Main Street.

“This is a deep and complex sets of problems. So while a new administration should be responsible for its decisions in real time, we cannot hold it accountable for macroeconomic outcomes for one to two years,” said Alan S. Blinder, a former economic adviser to Mr. Clinton now at Princeton University.

But Robert Wright, a financial history professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said Mr. Obama can use the “inherit” line, “albeit carefully, essentially forever.”

“It’s sort of like that Billy Joel song, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ ” Mr. Wright wrote in an e-mail, adding the lyrics from the 1989 hit: “We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning since the world’s been turning / We didn’t start the fire / No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.”

“What he will have to own are the success or failure of policies adopted under his watch. But he can’t magically fix something that grew over years … and decades,” Mr. Wright said.

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