Friday, November 06, 2015

Credit and blame for eight years

An interesting picture is circulating around social media, a quick statistical summary of changes between 2008--"the last Bush year"--and today.  Rather than simply reproduce it, I'm going to discuss its data.  The essential point of it is that the country is much better off now than it was then--that the hysterical Republican jeremiads about how Obama has led us down the road to hell, and that another four years of the same policies would complete the destruction of America, are simply ridiculous.  That is true, but there are other subtler implications buried in the data--and in data that does not appear--that put a more broadly historical slant on the data.

Let us begin, as the poster does, with raw macroeconomic data.  The unemployment rate has fallen from 7.2% to 5.1% (and dropped another .1% in the last month.)  GDP growth was -.3% in 2008 and is #.7% now.  The Dow has risen from 10,355 to 16,271.  And although the designers of the poster--"Occupy Democrats--declined for some reason to mention it, the fiscal 2009 deficit was $1.4 trillion, and the fiscal 2015 deficit was $412 billion, less than 1/3 as much--and I suspect the fiscal 2016 deficit, the real comparison, will be even lower.

This data is playing a role in the Republican primary campaign.  Chris Christie, John Kasich,and Scott Walker (while he was still in the race)  all give themselves and their policies credit for the economic recoveries and consequent budget improvements in their individual states.  Meanwhile, Jeb Bush gives himself credit for even faster growth during his term (1996-2004) as governor of Florida, even though that growth was obviously fueled by the worst housing bubble in the nation, and he escaped blame only because of his fortuitous departure from office three years before the bust.  In three debates, not a single moderator, much less a rival candidate, has challenged any of these men's economic claims.  The truth is that President Obama has presided over a relatively austere Administration, cooperating with Congress in a series of cuts in the federal discretionary budget, while allowing tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to lapse in 2009.  He has pursued moderate Republican economic policy, with good, though hardly spectacular, results.  It was not so long ago that 5% unemployment was cause for concern, not rejoicing.  Still, it is rather sad to see him get so much less than no credit for getting us back to our new normal.

But has anything other than the slow, steady drop in unemployment helped the average American?  Yes. As the poster informs us, the rate of medically uninsured Americans has dropped from 15% to 9.2%.  It could have dropped further had not nearly every red state governor refused to undertake medicaid expansion.  Oddly, however, Democratic politicians are still too frightened to take any credit for this publicly.  Paul Krugman recently pointed out that the Republicans have stopped running ads about people claiming to have been hurt by Obamacare, because their stories have not held up.  I expect such ads to return next fall.  And I am not aware of a single ad that any Democratic candidate has run featuring some of the many Americans--of all races--who have been helped by Obamacare.  Republican propaganda has very effectively skewed the public debate.  Meanwhile, the fall in the deficit reflects a sad, simple fact: Obama's measures to stimulate the economy were brief and relatively modest, and since 2011 he has been going along with the Republicans in the House, and now the Senate, and steadily cutting back desperately needed federal discretionary spending.

Meanwhile, the poster has nothing to say about income distribution, because, of course there is no good news to report. Inequality was bad in 2008, and it is worse now.  The new GDP brought about by the recovery of the last six years or so has gone entirely to the top few per cent of our society.  That in turn has increased their political influence still further.  In that sense, Barack Obama and his administration have failed to reverse the most important long-term trend of the last 40 years, the shift from a relatively egalitarian society to a new Gilded Age.

The poster's next two data points refer to energy.  The cost of a gallon of gas has fallen from $3.24 to $2.31, and our oil imports have been cut by more than half, from 11 million barrels to 4.5 million.  That, I believe, is the fruit of the energy policy Dick Cheney's task force adopted way back in 2001, out of sight of the public--an attempt to use fracking to create an energy-independent United States.  It has had stunning results and has made life easier for millions of Americans, including yours truly, who is looking forward to lower heating oil bills this winter.  But like income inequality, this is in area in which the President has gone with the flow that had built up over the years before he became President.  We shall find out later whether it has been a good thing or not.

Lastly, in its one foray into foreign policy, the poster reports that Iran had 19,000 centrifuges in 2008 and has 6000 today.  I agree that the Iranian nuclear agreement is a remarkable achievement--although the Supreme Leader is not making its implementation any easier by ratcheting up his anti-American rhetoric to compensate for it.  The poster might also have compared the number of American troops in Afghanistan Iraq then to now, which would have flattered the Administration, in a sense, as well.  But policy toward the Middle East is another area, like energy, in which Obama has gone with the flow.  Bush overthrew one Middle Eastern dictator; Obama has encouraged or actively brought about the overthrow of three others, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and he has called for the overthrow of a fourth, Hafez Assad, with disastrous results.  ISIS, which did not exist in 2009, now rules a good chunk of Iraq and Syria, partly as a result of these policies.  The worst refugee crisis since the Second World War has also resulted.   The Bush Administration fantasy that democracy would follow dictatorship has continued to influence American foreign policy, and it has mainly produced more chaos.  The number of American troops in the region, while still small, is increasing again.

In its only foray into social issues, the poster points out that teen pregnancies are also done, from 40.2 per thousand to 26.5.   That's very good news too, of course, but it may be threatened by the Republican attempt to put Planned Parenthood out of business.  Gay marriages, of course, have also enormously increased, and will continue to do so.  I welcome all this, but on the economic and foreign policy front, Barack Obama has missed the chance to reverse the trends of the previous years, because he did not want to.  (I shall have more to say about him personally, based on new evidence from the public domain, next week.)  Hillary Clinton is his most likely successor, and her whole record tells me that she will do nothing to reverse those trends either.   The persistence of Republican control of Congress will stop her from doing much on the domestic front in any case.  And if a Republican is elected, Obama will go down in history like Louis XVI or James Buchanan--the last, marginally ineffective defender of an old order destined for the dustbin of history.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I look forward to next week's blog.

Although the Obama administration has had its shortcomings, some of which are that he recognized futility and therefore failed to try, and that this articulate president has declined to use the bully pulpit to enhance his agenda, I don't share all of the same ones that you do. It is true that during his eight years in office the progressive agenda has not advanced as many would have expected. But it is sometimes helpful to assess accomplishments according to the Army training process, i.e., task, condition, standard, which applies to more than pouring soldiers out of the training pipeline. The general tasks progressives set forth did not change; the standard to which progressives expected them to be accomplished was generally known; but what progressives did not allow for in assessment of accomplishment of the tasks to standard was the conditions under which the tasks had to be performed. These cannot be left from any assessment of this presidency. To suggest that other presidents have overcome such conditions is to say that they are the same, which cannot be. What has been accomplished cannot be separated from the conditions in which the task was undertaken, and here, in my view, the Obama presidency is not a failed one.

If the Obama presidency is a failed one from the progressive viewpoint, then it is important to know that this is a result of intent and /or personality rather than condition.