By almost any measure it’s been an incredibly difficult and humbling year for President Obama. After all, the Democratic presidential candidate, who appeared to be as close to a “sure thing” as there is in politics, and who fashioned herself as an extension of Obama’s policy platform, got trounced. The result isn’t just a blow to Obama’s political standing, it threatens to completely erase his legacy.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise that Obama used his final Weekly Address to take a victory lap. The short, four-minute speech was fashioned as a “thank you” to citizens for “everything you’ve done to make America stronger these past eight years.” And yet, if you wipe away the thin veneer of graciousness, it’s very clearly meant as a glorified pat on the back for a job well done.
“Just eight years ago, as I prepared to take office, our economy teetered on the brink of depression. Nearly 800,000 Americans were losing their jobs each month. In some communities, nearly one in five folks were out of work,” Obama said. “Almost 180,000 troops were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden was still at large. And on challenges from health care to climate change, we’d been kicking the can down the road for way too long.”
But, if Obama is to be believed he fixed all of that. The economy is humming, incomes are rising, millions of Americans are enjoying “the financial security of health insurance,” and “[a]lmost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected.”
“And here’s the thing,” Obama said, “none of it was inevitable. It was the result of tough choices we made, and the result of your hard work and resilience.”
To be fair to the outgoing president, things are certainly better than they were eight years ago, i.e. at the depths of the worst recession in generations. But that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. And it’s not exactly clear that we shouldn’t have done better. After all, by any usual measure of progress, this recovery has been the weakest since 1949.
So although Obama may honestly believe that the election may have gone differently “if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we have taken” to improve it, it’s difficult to see how. That point of view seems to presume that Americans’ economic anxiety is simply a fiction that could be explained away.
But it isn’t.
Sure, the unemployment rate has fallen significantly, but it’s been met with an attendant decrease in the Labor Force Participation Rate, which has hovered near historic lows. In other words, more people are being pushed out of the workforce, and it’s not just because the population is aging.
There are other troubling indicators as well. Average annual inflation-adjusted GDP growth in the post-World War II era has been 2.9 percent (since 1947 it’s been 3.2 percent). But average growth under Obama has averaged a meager 1.5 percent – a figure that doesn’t include 2016, which was off to the weakest start of any year since 1949.
Median household income has similarly stagnated. After adjusting for inflation, the average American family is earning 1.6 percent less than they did in 2007, and 2.4 percent below the peak years in the late 1990s. And those deltas exist despite a 5.2 percent increase in 2015. Although the recent growth can’t be seen as anything but good news, it shows you just how bad things were for so long.
And finally, there’s the national debt, which has nearly doubled from $10.63 trillion to $19.95 trillion. Don’t be fooled into thinking that doesn’t have real world impacts. Interest on the debt is, and will continue to be, the fastest growing area of federal spending in the coming years, outpacing Medicare and Social Security. According to the Congressional Budget Office, interest payments are scheduled to more than triple, from $250 billion in 2016 to $800 billion, over the next decade. That’s money that can’t be spent on services for citizens or investments in the economy.
But have no fear. Obama isn’t going gently into that good night. No, he intends to make sure all this wonderful handiwork remains in place.
“And as I prepare to take on the even more important role of citizen, know that I will be there with you every step of the way to ensure that this country forever strives to live up to the incredible promise of our founding – that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve every chance to live out our dreams,” Obama concluded.
What Obama doesn’t seem to realize is that the best way for us to achieve that is for him not to be there every step of the way. After all, his leadership has led us far away from where we dreamed of being.