You can add my name to the list of people who have been disappointed in the past four years of the Obama administration.
And, like most people on that list, it’s probably a reflection of the high expectations that many Americans felt about our 44th president. High expectations—combined with the extraordinary disasters of an economic collapse, record deficits, and two unpopular wars— all of which Obama inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, had the makings of a disappointed electorate. It’s a package of ills that Republican challenger Mitt Romney has been eager to exploit.
But when judged against a more realistic set of expectations, and an understanding of the unprecedented set of circumstances that President Obama faced from his first day in the White House, the president’s successes certainly outweigh his failures.
While President Obama has faced withering criticism on the economy, no president had the ability to fix quickly what the bursting of the housing bubble and resulting financial collapse had done to the nation’s economy. In a matter of months under the Bush administration, Americans watched helplessly as trillions of dollars in wealth vanished before their eyes. It’s not possible to flip a switch and turn such an economy around.
President Obama did, however, do what needed to be done. He passed an economic stimulus bill that stopped the freefall and rebuilt a sense of confidence that the economy was no longer headed towards the abyss. He increased aid to the states to help reduce the impact of the massive loss of jobs in teaching, law enforcement, and other public service professions.
While it was extremely unpopular at the time, President Obama’s decision to rescue GM and Chrysler will be viewed in history as a critically-important decision that made it possible for the two automakers to survive. Contrary to Mitt Romney’s assertions, public funding of an auto rescue was the only path forward. Private investors weren’t going to take the risk.
In thinking about the economy, the accompanying chart (see next page) tells the real story about the success of the president’s policies, which stemmed the employment freefall and led to more than 30 straight months of private sector job growth. Had the president inherited a typical economy, his track record would be viewed very positively. It’s only because we fell so far that the climb back has been so difficult.
Those who complain that President Obama has relied too heavily on government to spur the economy are misinformed.
In fact, Obama has presided over the largest decline in public sector employment of any president in modern times. Today, there are nearly 700,000 fewer public sector workers in the U.S. than when President Obama took office. By contrast, government employment grew by 800,000 in George W. Bush’s first term, and we saw similar rates of growth under all our recent presidents, including President Reagan. Under President Obama, the recovery is being led by the private sector to an almost unprecedented degree.
Mitt Romney, unfortunately, has resorted to fiction as he attacks President Obama’s record. He claims that half of the green energy companies that received government assistance under the stimulus bill have gone bankrupt. In fact, about eight percent went bankrupt, which is a substantially better record than Mitt Romney experienced at Bain Capital.
Mitt Romney claimed in the first debate that President Obama doubled the deficit. In fact, he inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit from President Bush, and ended the just-completed fiscal year with a $1.1 trillion deficit. That’s still too high, but it’s a far cry from “doubled.” In fact, Obama can honestly say he’s cut the deficit.
Mitt Romney even had the audacity at the first debate to pretend that U.S. companies did not receive tax breaks for shipping plants overseas, which has become a Democratic talking point in the campaign. Mr. Romney, of course, is well aware that U.S. companies are allowed to write off their moving expenses for shipping plants and production equipment to other countries— and that Republicans have repeatedly blocked Democratic attempts to remove the tax deduction for such expenses.
With Mitt Romney, it’s one false charge after another.
When it comes to his own policies, Mitt Romney won’t go there. He has refused time and again to explain how his plan to cut tax rates will avoid exploding the deficit without hitting the middle class with big tax increases. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center said the numbers just don’t add up. It’s the same irresponsible tax policies that were the hallmark of the George W. Bush administration.
And Romney wants to undo regulations that have reined in the worst excesses of Wall Street, virtually guaranteeing a return to the same abusive practices that led to the 2008 financial crash. Add in Gov. Romney’s call for massive cuts in government spending, including education, infrastructure, and public safety, and we have the makings of a new recession. Such austerity was tried in Europe as the solution to the financial collapse, and it’s been a disaster. Romney wants to double-down on Europe’s failed austerity plan.
While the economic recovery has taken time, we’ve made real progress. Consumer confidence and housing starts have both risen sharply since the summer. The U.S. auto industry is profitable again. Consumer spending is up and unemployment is heading in the right direction. As a country, we’re making smart investments again that will pay off in the future.
It’s okay to be disappointed that the change hasn’t come fast enough. It rarely does, particularly when one party— in this case the GOP— has adopted wholesale obstruction as a political strategy. But change is coming, and abandoning that course now— in the belief that a return to the policies of George W. Bush will somehow restore economic growth— would be foolish.
We’ve been down the road of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich too many times before. As we’ve learned again and again, that road’s a dead end.