The recovery, and the president, struggle against a skeptical tide
By Tom Baxter
A few minutes before the June jobs report was released last Thursday morning, the wise guys on “Squawk Box” went around the table predicting what job growth would be. Even the optimist on this panel was far short of the 288,000 new jobs reported by the Labor Department. Later that day, as the nation prepared for Independence Day, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average passed 17,000 for the first time in history.
Also last week, a Quinnipiac University poll showed a plurality of Americans thought Barack Obama was the worst president since World War II.
What is wrong with this picture?
One of the foundational notions of political science is that political choices follow economic trends, and in the 2012 presidential election, they certainly did, rewarding the incumbent for the economy’s rebound after the disastrous 2008 crash. So why should Obama have fallen into such low repute, even as the economy continues to rebound?
The answers lie partly with the president and partly with the economy. Our opinions about both are a lot more complicated than they used to be.
The poll showed 33 percent thought Obama was the worst post-WWII president, which isn’t good news for him, but it isn’t close to a majority either. What this poll illustrates most clearly is that those who don’t like Obama, really don’t like him.
Another way of looking at this poll is that if you add Obama’s ranking to that of the president with the next-worst score, George W. Bush, you could say that a solid majority — 61 percent — think either the current president or his predecessor was the worst in the postwar period. That says something about the depth of the partisan divide in this country, and the likelihood that whoever succeeds Obama will stir up an equal portion of discontent.
The Atlantic/Aspen Institute Survey of what Americans expect things to be like in 2024, also out last week, offers striking evidence of the racial divide which underlies that partisan divide. Sixty-six percent of white Americans think the country in on the wrong track, compared to 26 percent of African-Americans. My guess is that a comparable poll conducted 10 years ago or 20 years ago would have been roughly the reverse: Obama’s presidency has had an impact on the way both whites and blacks look at the future. (If there’s a truly newsworthy survey result lately, it’s the finding, way down in this poll, that a plurality of Americans — 44 percent — think Spanish will be the most widely spoken language in the country in 10 years.)
Like Obama’s polling numbers, the standard economic indicators are harder to read than they once were, and optimism about their meaning is dispersed much differently than it might have been in the past.
As they like to say on those financial shows, this has been a very thin recovery. Despite the overall recovery, 32 states, including Georgia, still have not regained the jobs they lost in the Great Recession. Nor does the record Dow mark tell all the story, because a significant portion of the money that fueled the U.S. economy before the recession has been off the table since, and at some level that means personal and family fortunes that have stagnated. This recovery has struggled with every bit as much skepticism as the president.
After 9/11, 2001, there was all sorts of talk about how life in this country would enter a “new normal,” which turned out to be much like the old normal but more of a hassle at the airport. Oh, and all those uniforms heading from the airport USO station, too.
There was no similar coinage after 9/15, 2008, the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, but in many respects the financial disaster that ensued demarcates a more sweeping new normal. The pessimism expressed about the nation in 2024 by many Americans in the Atlantic/Aspen Institute Survey, about how things will be for their children, about America’s standing in the world and the divisions within it, reflect this new uneasiness.
Whether Americans view Obama as the worst president or not depends a lot on how they think about what was happening in the country as the 2008 presidential election which put him in office neared. It depends on who they hold responsible for it, and how close to a larger disaster they think the country came. And on how they think they’re doing, six years later.