On Wednesday night, former president Bill Clinton gave a long-winded address (as is his wont — few like the sound of their own voice more than him, with the possible exception of Fidel Castro) in an attempt to make an excuse for the current president’s pathetic job performance on the economy. Here is the essence of his argument:
President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No president — not me, not any of my predecessors — could have repaired all the damage in just four years.
So is it true?
Well, first of all, the statement is misleading, in that it implies that Clinton started with a weak economy at all. Despite all the nonsense by James Carville and others during the campaign in 1992 about George Herbert Walker Bush creating “the worst economy in fifty years,” Clinton actually inherited a robust economic recovery, and, as shown in the graph below, GDP had been growing at a four percent clip all through the election year (recall that Clinton won with only 43% of the popular vote because Ross Perot took so many votes from Bush).
Of course, there is also an implication that Bill Clinton is responsible for the economic boom that he inherited, and that no president could have done a better job than he did. But in fact, much of the boom was due to a) the end of the Cold War, with its so-called “peace dividend,” b) the explosive growth of the Internet and the associated tech bubble (which popped in 2000, just in time to hand George W. Bush a recession as he came into office), and c) a Republican Congress in 1994, the first in four decades, forcing a reform of welfare and getting the deficit under control, something for which Bill Clinton had no plans to do at all when he came into office. Clinton cannot take credit for any of these things, other than handing Congress over to the other party as a result of his health-care and gun-control overreach in the beginning of his term.
Now, let’s look at the current situation. Here’s a graph from about a year ago showing how little we have bounced back in terms of job growth relative to past recessions.
Considering that we’ve been stuck at above 8% unemployment for the past year as well (including last week’s jobs report), just continue the graph for the current economy with the same slight upward slope to the right.
While this particular graph only goes back a few decades, the current “recovery” is actually the worst since the end of World War II. In almost every other recovery for the past several decades, employment returned to pre-recession levels within three years (the most recent one during Bush’s first term took almost four). In this recovery, if we extrapolate the current trend, it’s still several years away. Note also that in each case, the curves are symmetric, that is, the slope of the recovery was about the same steepness as the decline, except for the present one, in which we had a sharp and deep job loss, and a very shallow recovery. And if we were to consider the real unemployment number, taking into account those who are underemployed and those who have given up, it’s probably closer to twenty percent, not eight. In other words, Great Depression levels.