- - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama, looking for a legacy, may soon find himself running from one. Americans forgive few things less than a poor economic performance, and Mr. Obama has presided over one throughout his presidency. However, as 2015’s first-quarter results show a stalled economy that threatens to go into reverse, Mr. Obama could finally feel the fallout — not owing to just today’s economy, but his entire presidency’s.

America’s low tolerance for low growth is easily measured by looking at previous presidents who faced it. Since 1932, there have been six occasions when the nation’s annual real gross domestic product has fallen within a year of a presidential election. In five of those — 2008 (-0.3 percent), 1991 (-0.1 percent), 1980 (-0.2 percent), 1975 (-0.2 percent), and 1932 (-12.9 percent) — the party in power lost the White House in the next election. Only Harry S. Truman survived, largely because 1947’s 1.1 percent fall was part of the overall World War II retrenchment.

Even more telling, in the six occasions when the economy shrank for even a single quarter within a year of a presidential election — 2008, 1991, 1980, 1975, 1960 and 1956 — the party in power lost in five of them. This time, Dwight Eisenhower, who led the Allies to victory in World War II and had recently ended the Korean War, survived two negative quarters in 1956.

Thus far, Mr. Obama has swum successfully against his own economic tide. Since he took office, U.S. real GDP has performed as follows: -2 percent in 2009, 2.5 percent in 2010, 1.6 percent in 2011, 2.3 percent in 2012, 2.2 percent in 2013, and 2.4 percent in 2014. That averages to an amazingly low 1.5 percent real growth for his presidency. Even dropping 2009, the recovery has averaged only 2.2 percent. Yet Mr. Obama has twice won re-election with more than 50 percent of the popular votes — the first Democrat to do so since FDR.

However, Mr. Obama may be in real danger of seeing his legacy rewritten, threatening Democrats’ hope of holding to hold the White House in 2016.

In this year’s State of the Union address, Mr. Obama laid claim to an economic recovery that already appears in jeopardy. He stated, “After a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing . The shadow of crisis is past and the State of the Union is strong. At this moment — with a growing economy we have risen from recession .”

At the time he made that claim, the U.S. economy had experienced its two strongest consecutive quarters of growth of his presidency — 4.6 percent and 5 percent in 2014’s second and third quarter. However, just over a week later, fourth-quarter data would limp in, showing just 2.2 percent growth. Now, 2015 first-quarter growth has come in at just 0.2 percent.

Mr. Obama finds the economy facing low growth in the critical historical window — a year before a presidential election. The threat of a downturn at this time, while dangerous for any president, would be especially so for Mr. Obama — not just because of the presidential election approaching, but the long subpar economic performance preceding it.

With the last recession starting before he took office, Mr. Obama has had an alibi for the economy’s continuing subpar performance. We can assume that had the downturn begun on his watch, Mr. Obama would have paid for it politically by being a one-term president.

However, a decline at this point in his presidency would present Mr. Obama with a very different threat for several reasons. First, it would be his. Mr. Obama himself underscored this just over three months ago by claiming credit for recovery.

Second, it would come in the crucial pre-presidential election year — a time when American voters have consistently made presidents and their parties pay for poor economies. In politics and economics, timing matters.

Third and most importantly, previous administrations suffering the fallout from economic downturn a year before a presidential election did so despite having better economic legacies than Mr. Obama does. A downturn at the wrong time cost them five out of six times.

Mr. Obama’s current policy priorities show he has turned the domestic page on his presidency. This is not surprising, considering he is now a lame-duck president and faces a Republican Congress for the first time. Presidents often turn increasingly abroad as their terms conclude. And presidents facing opposition-controlled Congresses inevitably see fewer opportunities for new legislative initiatives.

However, Mr. Obama could find domestic issues come back at him — whether he likes it or not — in a big way, if the economy indeed takes a wrong turn. For the first time, he could find himself forced to take full responsibility for his failure.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration.

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