As we approach another general election, it will be interesting to see how the economic performance of Democrats is judged. If voters borrow the preferred method of John Kerry and other Democrats from 2004, Barack Obama will be revealed to be among the worst presidents in history.
During the 2004 election, Democrats constantly reminded voters that George W. Bush was the first president in decades to oversee a net loss of jobs.
The drumbeat was incessant. “This administration is the first since Herbert Hoover’s to actually lose jobs on its watch -- 1.8 million jobs,” Kerry said at a campaign stop. His campaign chairman, Jeanne Shaheen, said Bush deserved “the first-ever ‘Herbert Hoover Award’ for having the worst jobs record since the Great Depression.”
The Hoover analogy was a stretch, as some recognized even back then. The watchdog election site factcheck.org wrote, “Comparing the Bush economy to Hoover’s Great Depression is just silly, and implying that tax cuts are not contributing to job growth deserves an ‘F’ in freshman economics.”
As an adviser to the Bush re-election campaign, I regularly rebutted the Hoover charge when I appeared on television to debate Kerry supporters in 2004. Here’s what I said then, and still say now: While some presidents arrive in Washington during boom times, others come during busts, and those often are the ones elected precisely because voters hope that they will change economic policies.
Bush arrived just as the last recession was beginning -- a bit of timing that Obama can relate to. Though that recession was brief, the subsequent jobless recovery did little to strengthen Bush’s record as he entered his reelection year.
Obama, of course, is just 17 months into his presidency, and more than two years from facing the voters personally. But with a big midterm congressional election upcoming, let’s see how Obama would fare if Kerry-like tactics were used on him.
The answer: not well. Whether the measurement is job creation, unemployment or growth of gross domestic product, the economy has been worse under Obama than it was under Bush.
First, job creation. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. shed 2.3 million jobs since February 2009, Obama’s first full month in office. Going back to World War II, that is by far the worst record for any president in his first 17 months, outpacing the job destruction experienced in the early Bush years by more than 800,000 jobs.
For Obama, there is an even worse way to play the data, which might just become fodder for a political ad: From November 2008, the month he was elected, until now, the economy has shed an astonishing 4.4 million jobs. That’s worse than Hoover.
Sure, you can blame the first few months of that period on lame-duck President Bush. But perhaps companies accelerated their shedding of jobs because they were bracing for higher tax rates, increased union power and costly environmental taxes under Obama.
Other measurements are only slightly kinder to Obama. The two-percentage-point increase in unemployment rate during his presidency, to 9.7 percent from 7.7 percent, is the third-worst since World War II. Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford saw bigger increases.
GDP growth under Obama, an abysmal 3 percentage points so far, is the fourth-worst in the postwar period. Eisenhower, Ford and Ronald Reagan all began their terms with worse GDP growth.
But hey, it was Kerry and the Democrats who made job creation the be-all and end-all measurement of a presidency, and by that standard, Obama is dredging a new low. It’s probably a good bet that Democrats who became so enamored of Hoover’s name in 2004 won’t be mentioning it much this year.
Republicans should be willing to drop it too -- so long as some economic adviser to Kerry-Edwards ‘04 admits the campaign was wrong to bring up Herbert Hoover in the first place.
(Kevin Hassett, director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is a Bloomberg News columnist. He was an adviser to Republican Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Click on “Send Comment” in the sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.