Are We Better Off Now than We Were Two Years Ago?


To borrow a construction from the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, there’s a dog that hasn’t barked in this election.  In a campaign dominated by the economy, Republicans have never invoked some version of Ronald Reagan’s devastating query from 1980, “Are you better now than you were four years ago?”  It turns out, there’s good reason for their reticence:  By every basic economic measure – GDP growth, corporate profits, business investment, the stock market, incomes, wages, and jobs – Americans actually are quite a bit better off now.  That’s the inescapable conclusion after comparing the economy’s performance over the first six-to-seven quarters of Barack Obama’s presidency with its performance during the last six-to-seven quarters under George W. Bush.  

Let’s start with overall growth.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) tells us that from January 2009 through June 2010, the first six quarters of the Obama presidency, the country’s real GDP grew by more than 2.8 percent.  That may not be strong growth by the standards of the Clinton or Reagan eras.   But it leaves Americans considerably better off compared to the last six quarters of George W. Bush’s term, when the economy’s output shrank by 2.1 percent. 

Business leaders complain a lot that President Obama unfairly bashes them.  Yet, the data suggest that they should thank him, because American business is clearly a lot better off under Obama.  The BEA reports that corporate profits grew 62 percent in the first six quarters of his term, rising from an annual rate of $995 billion in the first quarter of 2009 to $1,425 billion in the second quarter of 2010.  That’s a complete turnaround from the last six quarters of Bush’s term, when the annual rate of corporate profits fell 34 percent, from $1,501 billion to $995 billion.  It’s the same story for gross domestic investment by American businesses, which fell at an annual rate of 14.2 percent over the last six quarters of the Bush presidency, but has turned around under Obama to increase by 17.5 percent over his first six quarters. 

Given this record, it’s no wonder that American investors also are much better off today.   Standard & Poors reports that over the first 21 months of the Obama presidency, their benchmark index, the S&P 500, rose more than 46 percent, from 805.22 to 1,176.19.  The healthy gains under Obama have wiped out the miserable record of the last 21 months of the Bush presidency, when the S&P 500 sank 43 percent, from 1,495.4 to 850.1.

Political scientists say that the most powerful economic measure, for affecting elections, is what happens to people’s incomes.  The BEA has issued six quarters of personal income data since Obama took office.  Again, the contrast is clear.  From January 2009 through June 2010, the real per capita income of Americans rose 0.7 percent, from $32,780 to $33,009.  That’s not much, but it’s nearly twice the gains seen over the last six quarters of the Bush presidency, when real per capita income rose 0.4 percent, from $32,681 to $32,810. The hourly wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tell the same story.   Adjusted to 2010 dollars, hourly wages over the first 19 months under Obama increased 1.0 percent, from $22.45 to $22.67.  Again, that’s not great progress, but it’s considerably stronger than the wage gains over the last 19 months of the Bush presidency, when the real hourly wage grew 0.7 percent, from $22.18 to $22.33.

Finally, we come to jobs. A few months ago, I calculated that 92 percent of all private-sector job losses in this period occurred under Bush or during the first six month of Obama’s term, before his policies took effect.   Even if we don’t draw that fine distinction and compare the jobs record of the President’s first 19 months in office with the last 19 months under his predecessor, Americans again are clearly better off under Obama. BLS reports that total non-farm employment in September of this year was 130.2 million or 2.0 percent lower than the level in January 2009.  That’s a marked improvement from the much sharper job losses over the last 19 months under George W. Bush, when total non-farm employment shrank 3.5 percent from 137.7 million to 132.8 million jobs.

There is no doubt that Americans are disappointed and angry that the jobs and incomes picture hasn’t improved more.  But elections involve choices.  How the early-term Obama economy stacks up against the late-term Bush economy may help explain why, as my NDN colleague Simon Rosenberg has acutely argued, we may not be headed for a GOP wave this November.  At least, it’s now obvious why Republicans aren’t asking Americans if they’re better off now than they used to be.  The mystery is why more Democrats aren’t using Ronald Reagan’s famous question to frame their own campaigns.



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