- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

President Obama gets mediocre marks for his handling of the economy, and Mitt Romney easily outpolls his Republican rivals, in an Associated Press survey of economists.

The economy — and who bears responsibility for it — is likely to be a decisive issue when voters to go the polls next November.

The economy is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The housing market remains weak and a debt crisis in Europe threatens growth in 2012. The unemployment rate is at a recession-level 8.6 percent, up from 7.8 percent when Mr. Obama took office in January 2009. That month, the recession was already more than a year old.

Half of the 36 economists who responded to the Dec. 14-20 Associated Press survey rated Mr. Obama’s economic policies “fair.” And 13 called them “poor.” Just five of the economists gave the president “good” marks. None rated him as “excellent.”

The AP economists expect economic growth to pick up to 2.4 percent next year. That would be an improvement from the under-2 percent growth expected for 2011. But the economists foresee little improvement — a dip to 8.4 percent — in the unemployment rate by Election Day.

Asked which Republican presidential candidate would do the best job managing the economy, two-thirds of the economists named Mr. Romney, one chose former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The rest didn’t pick anyone at all.

Allen Sinai, president of Decision Economics, says Mr. Romney, who ran a private-equity firm before turning to politics, is the “hands down” choice among Republican presidential contenders squaring off in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Romney’s a technocrat,” Mr. Sinai says. “He’s not an ideologue. He has a history in the real world of business.”

Some economists say the Obama administration didn’t push hard enough for more government spending or tax cuts to stimulate growth. “They’ve generally tried to take the right kinds of measures, but have often failed to lead with enough vigor to overcome political obstacles,” says William Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services.

Others say the president tried to do too much, especially by pushing early for legislation to overhaul the nation’s health care system instead of focusing on policies to promote growth and create jobs.

“Health care reform wasn’t necessarily the most important thing to be dealing with when you’re in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression,” says Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economics.

Some critics say Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus program relied too much on public-works projects that were slow to get going. Decision Economics’ Mr. Sinai says the president should have favored more tax cuts that put money in Americans’ pockets immediately.

Mr. Sinai notes that public-works projects failed to pull Japan out of a long economic slump that began in the 1990s and continues today. After the money is spent, “you’re left with deficits and debt.”

“And someday if you need new government stimulus, you can’t afford it. And that’s where we are now,” he said.

An Associated Press-GfK poll of American adults earlier this month found that 60 percent of American adults disapprove of Mr. Obama’s performance on economic issues.

Jamal Simmons, an adviser to the Obama campaign in 2008, said the president must remind voters how bad things were when he took office. The economy lost more than 820,000 jobs the month Mr. Obama was sworn in, the biggest drop since October 1949.

Since the job market hit bottom in February 2010, it has produced nearly 2.5 million jobs — 117,000 a month.

“Is it enough? Absolutely not, but it certainly ain’t what it used to be,” Mr. Simmons said.

Added Maury Harris, chief economist at UBS Securities, “you have to look at where you would have been if he hadn’t gotten the stimulus package through. We might be a lot worse off.”

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