Opinion

TOM KEANE

A good year for Obama, nation’s economy

President Obama.
AP
President Obama.

When it comes to the nation’s economy, 2014 was a very good year. Next year promises to be even better. Barack Obama deserves credit, but many recoil at the idea.

A year ago at this time, it seemed that at long last the nation was poised to rebound from the devastating recession of 2008. The glimmers of hope were there: The unemployment rate was trending downwards, private-sector jobs were being created, the GDP looked ready to grow significantly, and many economic forecasters (admittedly, practitioners of an art, not a science) were optimistic.

Pointing this out, however, provoked backlash. Many simply denied anything good was happening at all, determined — evidence to the contrary — to see the glass as not only half-empty but with a major leak. Others couldn’t stomach the notion that the reviled Obama could be a success at anything (indeed, the level of vituperation directed at this president remains exceptionally, perhaps uniquely, high).

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Yet a year later those glimmers of hope are now quite bright.

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The Dow Jones has just hit 18,000, a historic peak. The price of gasoline is down by more than a third from its $4 highs. The US economy grew at a 5 percent clip in the July-to-September third quarter — a startlingly high number — and 2015 looks to be strong, as well. Meanwhile, the inflation rate for the last 12 months is a barely discernible 1.3 percent. And the US budget deficit — remember the horrified cries from those who opposed Obama’s economic stimulus? — is now at its lowest level since 2008.

The 2008 crisis threw millions out of work and was of such soul-wrenching consequence that many of those folks simply gave up. Yet there have been 2.65 million new jobs created so far this year and the unemployment rate has fallen from a high of 10 percent in October 2009 to 5.8 percent last month. And the drop in the labor participation rate (a measure of how many want to find a job) seems to have plateaued — at around 63 percent — and may be starting to rise.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. Ideally the unemployment rate would get below five percent and the labor participation rate would climb to around 66 percent or more. Wages, although now rising, are still not where they should be, underscoring this country’s too-high inequality and the perils of maintaining a robust middle class. And there is a feeling by many that the economic rebound has been a too-long time coming – although arguably the reason for that was Congressional insistence on budget balancing instead of even stronger stimulus measures.

Still, on balance things are alright. These really are the good old days. We should be counting our blessings, not disparaging them.

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So why not give the president his due? After all, he’s been in office for six years. When things are going badly (e.g., ISIS), there is no question we heap blame on the White House. George H. W., Bill Clinton and George W. may indeed have laid the groundwork for those troubles, but Obama’s been in the White House long enough to now bear responsibility.

The reverse, it would seem, should be true when things are going well.

Granted, one could be stingy with praise if America were simply part of a world-wide surge of growth. In that scenario, Obama is just a lucky beneficiary along for the ride. But the rest of the globe isn’t doing great at all (and indeed, in our interconnected planet, that poses long-term risk to the United States). Unemployment in the European Union is 11.5 percent, and growth is almost flat. Japan is in recession. China may have hit a marker as the world’s biggest economy, but growth there is slowing. Russia is a basket case.

To the Obama haters, none of this matters. That, it seems, is the black-and-white nature of our political discourse: one is either all good or all bad. In truth Obama (and almost all politicians) are a mix. The president can be deservedly zinged on many fronts. But when it comes to the economy — a core responsibility for any nation’s chief executive — he fairly deserves a good grade: Not an A, perhaps, but certainly a solid B or B+.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com