A relatively simple statement from the President’s State of the Union speech last night deserves emphasis. After reminding Americans of the economic situation when he assumed office, when the country was bleeding jobs and reeling from the collapse of the housing bubble, Obama reported
“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like that never happens again.
The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now. As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”
Americans have a notoriously short attention span, and a wildly inflated conception of Presidential power. Republican prospects depend upon those characteristics. If the GOP is to recapture the Presidency, Americans must forget how we got into this mess, and how long it took for George W. Bush to dig the hole we find ourselves in. We also have to forget how he did it–what those “policies that brought on the economic crisis” were.
There may have been some unrecognized underlying weaknesses, but economists of all political persuasions agree that Bush inherited a healthy economy, and a shrinking national debt. It took him eight years, but Bush destabilized and weakened that economy, and dramatically increased the debt.
Let’s just look at the three most damaging policies Bush pursued. First, he refused to pay for the wars he so recklessly waged (wars that cost several times the estimates given by then-budget director Mitch Daniels). Second, he actually reduced taxes on the wealthy–thus exacerbating the widest income gap between rich and poor since the gilded age. (Those tax breaks were justified as “job creation” measures, despite the fact that such cuts have historically failed to create jobs.) And third, he eviscerated government regulation, allowing banks and other big businesses to operate with lawless impunity in the serene belief that the market would provide all necessary discipline.
There were plenty of other policies the Bush Administration pursued that were wrong-headed and harmful– failure to address environmental issues, cowboy unilateralism in foreign policy, an assault on civil liberties–but the “big three” did the most widespread damage and make it more difficult to address the others.
A lot of Americans who acknowledge all of this nevertheless believe that it should all be turned around by now. Why, Obama has had three years! These are the folks who must think we elect a king, rather than a President. In the real world, however, Presidential power is more constrained. The President can only do so much–and when those who control Congress refuse to cooperate, refuse even to negotiate, refuse to put the interests of the nation above the interests of their contributors, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that improvement has come slowly.
What’s surprising is that we’ve had improvement at all.