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Economic Truth is In the Numbers

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The outcome of the upcoming electoral battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will depend on public perceptions of the president’s economic stewardship, with particular emphasis on his performance on the all-important issue of jobs.

Has the White House compiled an impressive record of “putting Americans back to work” as the Democrats proudly boast, or did administration policies actually delay normal processes of recovery, taking a bad situation and “making it worse” as the Romney campaign insists?

Leaving aside the dubious nature of the proposition that any president actually creates jobs (other than new hires for the White House), there’s an easy way to cut through the dizzying flurry of conflicting statistics that partisans on both sides passionately promote: checking the raw, readily available data from the Department of Labor on how many Americans are working today compared with the number who held jobs at the end of the Bush administration.

By that standard, the nation unequivocally lost jobs in the first 39 months of the Obama presidency: with 142,287,000 working in May, 2012 (the most recent statistics available) compared with 143,338,000 at the end of December, 2008—the last employment numbers announced under President George W. Bush.

Moreover, these job losses occurred at a time of rapid population growth, with more than 8,100,000 new American residents (through both birth and immigration) over the same period. This explains the more dramatic increase of those listed by the government as “unemployed” (from 11,108,000 to 12,720,000) and the even more notable rise among those “not in the labor force” (from 80,588,000 all the way to 87,958,000).

With 342,000 Americans in April alone giving up on the search for a job, the overall percentage of work-age population either employed or looking for work dropped in April to 63.6 percent—the lowest level since December, 1981, in the darkest days of the disastrous Carter-Reagan recession. The slight uptick in labor force participation in May—0.2 percent—hardly removes the sting from disastrous numbers for the overall job market.

In other words, statistics strongly support the common perception that jobs remain fiendishly difficult to find, despite the administration’s happy talk about a burgeoning recovery. The president may not qualify as the catastrophic job killer of GOP caricature, but he can hardly claim the gleaming mantle of a robust job creator.

Nor can he plausibly pass himself off as a champion of tight-fisted spending restraint while throwing down a challenge to skeptical Republicans in another crucial issue of the campaign. At a May 24 campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, the president declared that “federal spending since I took office has risen at the slowest pace of any president in almost 60 years.”

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler fact-checked this claim and bestowed on the commander-in-chief the coveted “Three Pinocchios” designation.

Again, a quick check of numbers at the White House’s own website gives the lie to Obama claims of cutting deficits and bringing the budget under control: the last budget signed by George W. Bush and passed by the Democratic Congress (for fiscal year 2008) amounted to $2.77 trillion with a deficit of $459 billion. The next year’s budget (signed by Obama and again authorized by the Pelosi-Reid Congress) included a great deal of “emergency spending” for the Obama Stimulus Package and reached $3.52 trillion with a deficit of 1.4 trillion. In other words, deficit spending more than tripled in Obama’s first year as president, and it’s remained at comparably crippling levels ever since.

As Andrew Taylor fact-checks the White House claims for the Associated Press, the president “measures up” with a 9.7 percent spending increase in 2009 “much of which is attributable to Obama” and “a 7.8 percent increase in 2010, followed by slower spending growth over 2011-13. Much of the slower growth reflects the influence of Republicans retaking control of the House and their budget and debt deal last summer with Obama.”

This summary raises one more crucial point indisputably indicated by universally accepted statistics: the dramatic difference in fiscal performance between Congresses controlled by Republicans and those dominated by Democrats. In fact, partisan majorities in the House of Representatives (where the Constitution stipulates that spending bills must originate) seem to matter more to the scope of deficit spending than whether a donkey or an elephant occupies the Oval Office.

President Obama rightly chides his Republican presidential predecessors for disappointing records of fiscal management, but fails to note that for all 12 years of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, and for the last two difficult years of the second Bush administration, Democrats wielded big majorities in the House.

It’s no accident that Bill Clinton enjoyed a vastly better record of economic management in the six years (1996-2001) he hammered out budgets with a Republican House (and averaged a surplus of more than 1 percent of GDP) than the two years he collaborated with his fellow Democrats (and racked up deficits of 2.5 percent). By the same token, George W. Bush averaged deficits at a typical level of 2.5 percent of GDP during the six years he worked with Denny Hastert and fellow Republicans, but when Nancy Pelosi took over the House during his last two years, the numbers exploded to a disastrous rate of 6.7 percent.

In raw dollar terms, the last “all-Republican budget” of 2007 (devised entirely by a GOP president and approved by a Republican House) brought a modest deficit of $160.7 billion, while the first “all-Democratic budget” of the Obama era in 2010 (wholly attributable to President Obama, and passed by the Pelosi House) amounted to deficit spending of $1.293 trillion—or eight times more than the bad old days of Bush.

The bottom line of any honest, uninflected examination of readily available budgetary and employment numbers provides both bad news and good news for President Obama’s reelection efforts.

The bad news: while he hardly qualifies as the devastating, prosperity-wrecking destroyer depicted in conservative propaganda, he certainly can’t claim a good record as a job creator with fewer people working today than when he took office, and vastly more having left the labor force altogether.

But the good news for Obama from the raw numbers also suggests that the wild spending growth that Romney and company regularly (and rightly) decry has already begun to subside under the influence of the Republican House. Based on historical patterns, the deficit might well continue to decline in a second Obama term—as long as the GOP maintains control of Congress and exercises stern supervision of the administration’s credit card.

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