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Three economic statistics that make Obama look good — but with some cautions

While it’s naive to act as if everything that happens is attributable to the policies coming out of the White House, it would be even sillier to deny they have an effect.

The economy is recovering. Obama is president.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A brilliant quote goes: “If you torture the numbers long enough, they’ll confess to anything.” One should always be especially careful about crediting numbers that prove that what you want to think is true is true. That goes for lefties and righties.

Writing for the lefty site Alternet, Dave Johnson compiles what he calls “Three Charts to Send to Your Right-wing Relative, guaranteed to make their head spin.”

You should click through on the link above to look at them, but the three charts indicate that:

1. Total U.S. government spending rose 88 percent during the George W. Bush presidency. So far, during the Obama presidency, spending has risen 3.78 percent.

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2. Bush inherited from President Bill Clinton a budget that was running a small surplus. The budget immediately went back into deficit and, by the end of the Bush years, reached an all-time high of $1.4 trillion. From that peak, the deficit has fallen steadily and dramatically Obama.

3. During the last of the Bush years, total private-sector employment started falling and the job loss accelerated rapidly month by month until the economy shed almost a million private-sector jobs during the last month of the Bush presidency. The job loss picture improved very slightly during the first months of the Obama presidency, but then improved dramatically until, by the end of Obama’s first year, the negative jobs number turned positive and the economy has added private-sector jobs ever since. The Alternet chart attributes the turnaround to the stimulus program.

These numbers are all pretty good for Obama, especially if you are comparing them to the (really pretty horrid) economic results under Bush. There are many dangers of critical-thinking errors available if Obama admirers (and I am one) get too excited about such comparisons. There are all kinds of unknowns connected.

A Republican might point out that the slow growth of spending under Obama would have been faster if he had had fewer Repubs in Congress slowing down his spendy ways. Of course a liberal could reply that if Republicans had gone along with more of Obama’s proposals, they would have stimulated the economy and more jobs would have been created sooner.

Another curve that reality throws against the easy assumptions is that one of the biggest things driving spending up in Bush’s first term (leaving aside for the moment the War on Terror, War in Iraq stuff, which should certainly not be left aside for too long) was Medicare Part D, which was a fundamentally liberal impulse coming out of the “compassionate conservative” strain of Bush’s ideology.

The budget deficit, under Bush, was also headed down at a pretty good rate in the first three years of Bush’s second term. The spectacular spike in the deficit in 2008 was all about the financial meltdown, measures to deal with it, and the onset of the Great Recession. The deficit would have bounced down from that peak under pretty much any president and any imaginable economic plan.

I don’t mean to be overly skimpy with praise for Obama’s impact on that chart — and I do believe he has much more of a debt/deficit hawk in him than any conservatives would credit — but even with the falling deficit shown on the chart, the lowest deficit of the Obama years would be the highest in history, if it wasn’t for the Great Recession deficits of Bush’s last year in office. I’ll be much happier when the combination of a declining deficit and a rising GDP combine to actually reduce the total debt as a percentage of GDP.

I consulted my friend Louis Johnston, an actual economist who writes about such things regularly for MinnPost, about the third chart, showing the growth in private-sector jobs before and after the Obama stimulus. He was bothered by the way the chart implies that all of those new jobs can be credited to the stimulus package. Every recession eventually ends in a recovery. He believes that a properly constructed stimulus program can get the recovery started sooner and make it stronger, and that’s likely what happened in the early Obama years.

All of my quibbling and contexting shouldn’t be taken as dismissive of the basic argument made in Johnson’s piece. The economy is recovering. Obama is president. While it’s naive to act as if everything that happens is attributable to the policies coming out of the White House, it would be even sillier to deny they have an effect.

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Republicans and conservatives who have trouble accepting that anything positive has occurred — domestically, economically or internationally — since Obama took office, need to look hard at these charts — so hard that they can see through some of their biases and maybe have a rethink about some of those biases.

hat tip: Ray Schoch