In his speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, former President Bill Clinton argued Barack Obama’s case, saying “No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
How about five?
A year after the election, Americans aren't happy with Obama. A recently-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found only 43 percent approve of the job the president is doing — the lowest ever. And when it comes to the economy, it's worse: Only 39 percent think he's doing a good job while a significant majority — 58 percent — do not. This may be a case of it being darkest before the dawn, however. As 2013 ends and we turn the page to a new year, the US economy appears poised for a significant rebound, and with it, Obama's fortunes.
The economic news from November has been strikingly good. To most Americans, the important measures of the economy are those that track employment. Another new high for the Dow Jones Industrial Index may prompt cheers, but it has little meaning for the out-of-work or underemployed. November saw the unemployment rate drop to 7.0 percent, the lowest since before Obama took office. And while the unemployment rate can often be a quirky and misleading measure, this time other indicators are marching in lockstep. The rate went down because a net of 203,000 jobs were created during the month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the average monthly gain for the last 12 months is now 195,000. The number of people participating in the labor force (that is, those working or those looking for work) also climbed, as onetime discouraged job seekers came back into the labor market, more optimistic about their chances of landing a position. Real wages increased, productivity grew, and inflation remained low — so far this year, it's averaged only 1.0 percent.
And all of this good news came during a time when the US government was getting over another one of its frequent crises — this time, the partial shutdown in October as federal workers were furloughed and uncertainty reigned. What that suggests is that there's a strong resiliency to the US economy. Policies put in motion by Obama shortly after he took office (particularly the economic stimulus law and the restructuring of the automobile industry) are now bearing fruit, and short-term kerfuffles — even a shutdown — won't stop it.
Meanwhile, the "broken city" is suddenly starting to look a little less broken. We've spent the last several months bemoaning the logjam in Washington, the intransigence of extremists (especially the Tea Partiers; the left flank poses nowhere near the same problem to Obama as the right does to Speaker John Boehner), and the lack of goodwill that prevents simple compromise. And now, suddenly, a budget deal is in the works, one that would end the automatic sequester, stop another shutdown, and, at least for the next two years, assure some measure of government stability.
Happy days are here again? I think so.
I'm hardly alone in my optimism. The chief economist of Moody's Analytics, Mark Zandi, believes, "the economy is gaining traction." The Economist magazine forecasts that in 2014, "the American economy will at long last enjoy a solid cyclical recovery." American business, it says, will be "on top of the world again."
Don't misunderstand. There are still long-term issues that could drag us down, especially the too-large deficit and the dearth of skilled employees available for today's knowledge-intensive jobs. And even a short-term recovery leaves many behind. November's unemployment rate for whites was 6.2 percent, for example, while for African Americans it was more than double, at 12.5 percent. Moreover, there's persistent worry that many of the new jobs just don't pay enough.
Still, something's afoot. "This could finally be the big moment for the US economy," says Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider. If so, Obama will get the credit. Some will claim he doesn't deserve it and, no question, the complex machinations of the economy are not under the control of any one man, even a president. But those same dissenters were blaming him when things weren't good, and it will hard now to make the opposite case. Obama may be down today, but things are looking up.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.