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Ignore the Haters: Obama Helped Save the U.S. Economy

Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski

On Thursday evening, President Obama delivered a speech at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, California promoting his economic policies targeted at millennials. It follows a broader speech that the president gave at Northwestern a week ago, when he touted the significant progress the economy has made during his presidency. “It is indisputable that our economy is stronger today than when I took office,” he told the crowd in Chicago. “By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office.”

No one would argue with that statement, but it’s a very low bar. [Update: As Binyamin Appelbaum points out on Twitter, not every economic measure has improved, particularly labor force participation as I talk about below. But the economy is still certainly improved since 2009.] After all, when Obama took office, the economy was in the midst of the worst recession in 80 years. And while the economy has certainly recovered, large numbers of Americans aren’t feeling it—a point that Obama himself is the first to admit. “Our broader economy in the aggregate has come a long way, but the gains of recovery are not yet broadly shared—or at least not broadly shared enough,” Obama also said last week.

This is the challenge that the White House faces when trying to communicate the successes of Obama’s economic platform: Acknowledging what hasn’t been done, even as it tries to boast about what has been done. It’s a difficult, maybe even impossible job. But political difficulty shouldn’t be mistaken for policy failure. The truth is that, given the severity of the Great Recession and unprecedented Republican obstruction, Obama’s economic policies have been a success.

The most consequential economic policy of Obama’s presidency was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a.k.a., the stimulus. Right-wingers deride it, but economists widely agree—92 percent of them, according to a Chicago Booth poll—that the unemployment rate was lower in 2010 than it would have been absent the stimulus. As Paul Krugman has argued (ad nauseam) over the past few years, this made sense based on traditional economic theory. When the financial crisis hit, Americans cut back on their spending, forcing businesses to fire employees, who then cut back on their own spending. As this process repeated itself, it created a “hole” in demand. The stimulus was designed to fill that hole. It wasn’t big enough, but that really wasn’t Obama’s fault. As Mike Grunwald, the man who wrote the book on the stimulus, has written, Obama faced political opposition in Congress to pass any stimulus larger than $800 billion. He did the best he could.

For many Americans, it’s hard to imagine that the stimulus worked. The unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent and real wages have been stagnant even as unemployment came back down. When Obama touts the current 5.9 percent jobless rate, many financial analysts roll their eyes. Yes, the unemployment rate has fallen, they note, but labor force participation is also at its lowest point since the late 1970s. A falling unemployment rate is not good if it’s the result of workers dropping out of the labor market. But not everybody who’s decied to stop looking for work has done so for the same reason. Some of them are baby boomers who are retiring, some are millennials who have gone back to school, while others really are prime-aged workers too discouraged to search for work. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have found work. When Obama says “our businesses have created 10 million new jobs,” it’s a legitimate testament to how far we’ve come.

To judge Obama’s economic policies based on the economy’s actual performance ignores the limitations of the presidency. He cannot pass laws. And when he does want to pass legislation, he has to work with Republicans to do so. This brings us to the most damaging economic policy of Obama’s presidency: the sequester. This was the ransom Republicans earned for taking the debt-ceiling hostage in 2011. Many liberals blame Obama for this. And they have some good reasons. Rhetorically, and maybe substantively, the White House became too concerned with reducing deficits in 2010 and 2011. This crucial mistake moved the Overton window in the GOP’s favored direction of spending cuts. In the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, the president refused to call the Republicans’ bluff that they would allow the government to default and instead accepted a terrible deal.

Even so, Obama never wanted the sequester and consistently sought a deal to eliminate it. He predicted that the sequester would damage the economy—and he was right. By one estimate, the sequester cost Americans 1.2 million jobs in 2013 alone. The Murray-Ryan budget relaxed some of those spending cuts, but the majority are still intact and will continue to hurt economic growth. Is it fair to blame Obama for the economic damage of the sequester? Maybe a little bit, but most of the fault lies with the GOP.

To understand just how damaging austerity is, one has to look no further than Europe. Forced by Germany into steep austerity, Greece, Italy and Spain have taken drastic steps to cut their spending. But that hasn’t unlocked stronger economic growth, as conservative economic theory predicted. Instead, unemployment is at 27 percent, 12.3 percent and 24.4 percent in those three countries respectively. In the Euro area, the unemployment rate is still 11.5 percent.

On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund released its newest economic forecast—and it’s not good. The IMF expects growth to be just 0.8 percent in the Eurozone in 2015. It cuts its 2014 economic growth forecast in Germany, which is supposed to be the economic engine of the Eurozone, from 1.9 percent to 1.4 percent. It also lowered its growth forecast in emerging economies like Brazil. The United States, on the other hand, is projected to grow at 3.1 percent in 2015. That’s not huge, but it’s faster than all other major industrialized nations.

The IMF didn’t mince words with what it faults for weak economic growth either: austerity. “Infrastructure investment, even if debt-financed, may well be justified,” said Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s senior economist. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the Fund, even directly implored Germany to spend more on infrastructure to jumpstart its economy.

Guess who else has been a major proponent of infrastructure spending over the past few years? Yes, President Obama. He has also supported renewing federal unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage. It’s hard to know how much these steps would have contributed to stronger economic growth. It takes time to actually put infrastructure money to use, long-term unemployment insurance affects only around a million Americans, and businesses could react to a higher minimum wage by bringing on fewer workers. But overall, these policies would have made Americans financially better off—and Obama deserves credit for at least trying to pass them.

Just as Obama’s economic agenda is underappreciated because of Republican obstruction, it has also benefited from support from the Federal Reserve. The Fed slashed short-term interest rates to zero in 2009 to spur consumers to spend and businesses to invest—in other words, to fill the hole in demand. That too proved insufficient, so, under the leadership of Ben Bernanke, the Fed used unconventional monetary policy tools like large-scale asset purchases—buying Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities—to lower long-term rates. These policies have undoubtedly been a major reason why the U.S. has recovered much faster than the Eurozone. The European Central Bank made numerous policy mistakes over the past few years, most notably raising interest rates in 2011.

Some conservative economists believe that the Fed really deserves credit for any economic improvement and that Obama’s policies—and the stimulus in particular—were irrelevant to the recovery. Under this theory, the Fed would have adopted looser monetary policy if the stimulus never passed. In other words, the stimulus doesn’t deserve credit for spurring stronger growth, because that growth would have happened no matter what, thanks to the Fed. This is known as monetary offset.

But this view ignores the political constraints within the Fed. After all, both Bernanke and current chair Janet Yellen have derided the spending cuts in the sequester and asked for help from policymakers. Fed policymakers have even admitted that full monetary offset isn’t real. That’s not to say that the Fed would have adopted the same policies with or without the stimulus. But it’s equally absurd to argue that the stimulus was ineffective.

President Obama has made many economic mistakes during his presidency. His housing policies, in particular, have represented a serious failure: He should have put someone at the head of Federal Housing Finance Authority long ago that would have offered debt relief to underwater homeowners. Obama has also neglected monetary policy, failing to nominate members to the Federal Reserve Board for long stretches of time. Those errors have undoubtedly worsened the recovery.

But it’s also true that the U.S. economy is in far better shape than the rest of the developed world. Growth is stronger and unemployment is lower. As Krugman explains in the current issue of Rolling Stone, the U.S. recovery has even slightly outpaced the historical average for a recovery after a severe financial crisis. And this is despite the reckless, destructive behavior of the Republicans.

The recovery still has a long way to go, of course. And given Congressional gridlock, Obama has little control over the economy right now. Whether or not American workers finally feel like the recession is over and see their wages rise is in the (capable) hands of the Federal Reserve. But given what Obama can control, his economic policies have done a pretty good job in the aftermath of the Great Recession, even if it’s impossible to convey that in a speech.