- - Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The economy’s strong second quarter has some asking why President Obama gets no credit for the recovery. The rest of America is asking: What recovery? While the White House may see itself as the Rodney Dangerfield of economic performance — getting no respect — there are plenty of reasons why a strong economy and Mr. Obama are not linked in the public’s mind.

For one thing, evidence of a real recovery is still slight. Granted, the economy grew 4.6 percent in the past quarter. However, if “a single swallow does not a summer make,” one good quarter does not equal a healthy economy. During Mr. Obama’s entire presidency, only one other quarter has equaled 4.6 percent growth.

At negative 2.1 percent, 2014’s first quarter was qualitatively as bad as the second quarter was good. It was the economy’s worst performance since 2009’s first quarter. Prior to the current period, it was the economy’s worst quarter since 1990 — roughly a generation ago.

The bad — or at least the subpar — outweighing the good has been the hallmark of the administration’s economic performance. In 10 of its 22 quarters, the economy’s growth has been below 2 percent.

Not including 2009’s negative 2.8 percent real gross domestic product downturn, Mr. Obama’s 2010-13 average annual GDP growth was just slightly above 2.1 percent. If 2009’s is included, the president’s five-year average falls to below 1.2 percent annual GDP growth. If the Congressional Budget Office’s 1.5 percent estimate for 2014 economic growth holds true, Mr. Obama’s six-year economic growth average will be a paltry 1.2 percent.

Putting that six-year, 1.2 percent average annual growth into context: Since 1975, there have been just five single years in which annual economic growth was below this level.

Of course, the economy’s impact on people can be measured more directly than by just a statistical growth rate. Mr. Obama’s unemployment record has been little better. Despite being aided by a large drop in labor-force participation (thereby deflating the rate), the percentage of unemployed has remained high.

Last month’s 5.9 percent unemployment rate was the lowest of Mr. Obama’s presidency, and it was the first time it is has been below 6.1 percent since he came into office. In contrast, for 30 consecutive months of his presidency the U.S. unemployment rate was 9 percent or higher.

The average annual unemployment rate for Mr. Obama’s first five years in office was 6.9 percent. Putting it into context: Prior to the Obama presidency, there was not a single year with an annual rate this high since 1993.

Nor has the economy lacked substantial assistance. First has been the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented monetary-policy accommodation, which has held interest rates at roughly zero percent for almost the entirety of Mr. Obama’s time in office.

The other has been an equally “stimulative” fiscal policy. From 2008 through 2013, federal debt held by the public more than doubled — growing 106 percent. In comparison, during the same period, America’s economy has grown just 12.6 percent overall.

Supporters will say Mr. Obama faced a recession when he came into office and that relative to the blow, the economy has at least endured. Of course, from an economic perspective, the greater the blow, the stronger the recovery should be, too. Such has not been the case.

However Mr. Obama’s problem with the economy runs deeper than just economics. It runs into politics for two important reasons.

First, the president is now firmly associated with the subpar economy of the past 5 years. Day in and day out for more than six years, America has suffered a profoundly long and painful economic performance, and Mr. Obama has been president during the large majority of this period. It is only natural to associate him with it. It is a test of most people’s memory — if not credulity itself — to try attaching today’s economy to George W. Bush — out of office for almost six years.

Second, America is not a second-rate country, and Americans aren’t accustomed to persistent failure. Rather, excellence is a given in most things — but probably most of all in the economy. Americans see this as the land of opportunity. People have always sought to come to America for a host of reasons, but chief among them has been its vibrant economy.

Given his record, what really amazes is not that the president does not get credit for a good economy, but that he does not get more blame for it being so poor. If anything, Mr. Obama should be counting his blessings for what little respect he has earned for his economy’s dismal performance.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

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