The Obama economic record

Published 3:00 am Thursday, July 6, 2017

Barack Obama’s election in November 2008 was a good news, bad news situation:  The good news, you’ve been elected President; the bad news, the economy’s a mess.  Given this tough start, how did the economy do under President Obama?

The administration’s first major economic act was passing the $800 billion spending stimulus called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in February 2009.  On the surface, the ARRA failed to deliver.  Mr. Obama’s economists projected that the ARRA would keep unemployment at or below 8 percent instead of rising to 9 percent.  In fact, unemployment reached 10 percent in October 2009.

While the ARRA’s failure might demonstrate the limits of government economic stimulus, the Great Recession was also worse than we thought.  The ARRA projections were based on an estimated 3.8 percent annual decline of GDP in the last quarter of 2008; the final statistics eventually revealed an 8.9 percent decline.  The damage eventually producing 10 percent unemployment occurred on President Bush’s watch.

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The Great Recession and President Obama’s policies yielded four consecutive years of trillion dollar plus budget deficits.  Federal debt held by the public more than doubled to $14 trillion, or 75 percent of our annual GDP.  The recession reduced tax revenues and increased safety net spending, but the ARRA and Medicaid expansion also contributed to the red ink.

The Obama deficits compromise our long term fiscal health.  The Congressional Budget Office projects that increased Social Security and Medicare spending as Baby Boomers retire will add $10 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.  We have limited capacity to borrow in the event of a future war or serious recession.

Economic growth (the change in inflation-adjusted GDP) was poor during the Obama years.  We failed to register a single year of 3 percent growth during a president’s term for the first time since the Great Depression.  Growth averaged just 1.5 percent, the worst presidential average since World War II.

The depths of the Great Recession make the lack of a year of 3 percent growth more surprising.  Robust growth often follows a deep slump as idle plants and workers go back to work.  The best growth year since the early 1950s was 7.25 percent in 1984.  While I would like to attribute this entirely to Ronald Reagan’s great economic policies, unemployment had reached 10.8 percent during the 1981-82 Recession.

Inflation, by contrast, was virtually nonexistent under President Obama, averaging just 1.35 percent annually and never exceeding 3.5 percent.  Consequently the Misery Index (the annual inflation rate plus unemployment rate) averaged 8.8 under Obama despite high unemployment, only one point worse than Bill Clinton and three points better than Reagan.

Unemployment remained stubbornly high throughout President Obama’s first term (still 8.0 percent in January 2013) before falling steadily during his second term to 4.8 percent.  The Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform both relied heavily on regulations that had to be written after passage to overhaul health care and banking.  Uncertainty about the new rules likely delayed business hiring.

More significant than the decline in unemployment, however, has been a reduction in employment.  Before the Great Recession, 63 percent of working age adults were employed, versus 60 percent now.  A dip in labor force participation is normal with a recession, as high unemployment and few job openings discourage potential workers.  But the current 4.3 percent unemployment rate and near-record job openings should have brought everyone back into the job market.  So the decline appears permanent.  Almost eight million Americans are not working now as a result, which has probably left GDP 5 percent lower.

President Obama’s final economics grade will depend on whether his policies have fueled the employment decline.  Government cannot control the economy, and should not try.  Consequently the President cannot be held responsible for every economic development.  If Americans have decided to work less, that is ultimately our prerogative.  But if President Obama’s policies contributed significantly to nearly eight million workers going AWOL, he is unlikely to graduate with honors.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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