Obama's Race Against the Economy

In early December 2000, in the midst of the post-presidential election Florida controversy, Vice President-to-be Dick Cheney told Meet the Press that "we may well be on the front edge of a recession here."

In March 2001, President Bush said, "You know better than me that our economy is slowing down."

In hindsight, Cheney was understating the situation and Bush was correct. Third-quarter 2000 growth, originally pegged at 2.7% just before the election, came in after all subsequent revisions at -0.5% -- i.e., it wasn't growth at all. (Homework for historians: how did that happen?) In fact, independent monthly gross domestic product (GDP) estimates by Macroeconomic Advisers show that the economy contracted in both November and December of that year (scroll down to near the bottom at the link), and that it hit additional troughs in March and September 2001.

But at the time, Democrats and the media -- but I repeat myself -- ripped into Cheney's and Bush's respective "may be" and "slowing down" remarks, claiming that they were "talking down the economy."

If so, then what are we to make of the much more downbeat yet more certain remarks by Barack Obama and Joe Biden on December 19?

At a news conference, the president-elect, who told an Oregon audience in May that "I've been in 57 states, [with] I think one left to go," contended that an economic recovery "will take longer than any of us would like -- years, not months. It will get worse before it gets better." Biden, on the verge of becoming the first vice president in U.S. history who can't count to four, said that "the economy is in much worse shape than we thought it was in," and expressed fears that it is close to "absolutely tanking."

These mostly unqualified assertions made by the math-challenged incoming pair were far stronger than those made by Bush and Cheney eight years ago. Yet we can "count" on two things: old media won't accuse them of negatively influencing the economy and cowed Republicans will barely object. Of course, new administrations tend to lower expectations a bit in advance of taking power, but Obama and Biden's statements were unusually sweeping.

There's a reason for that. The economy just might be recovering. That would be really, really bad news for their ambitions.