The anemic third-quarter U.S. GDP report is another indication that President Barack Obama’s economic gamble may yet fail to pay off. And that could be terrible news for Democrats heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
While the new report showed the economy shifting into recovery mode, it looks like a pretty anemic expansion. As the economics team at IHS Global Insight see things, temporary factors such as cash for clunkers (accounting for nearly half of the past quarter’s growth) and the homebuyers tax credit artificially inflated growth during the past three months. The firm puts underlying growth in the economy at closer to 2 percent than the 3.5 percent.
See, back at the start of 2009, the new White House team wagered that it could construct a stimulus plan that would both boost the economy, helping Democrats in the 2010 midterms, and serve as a significant down-payment on its long-term policy agenda in areas like clean energy and education. That would help Obama in 2012.
It’s a lot to ask of one plan, even a $787 billion one.
Of course, the task would have been easier had the administration gone with a $1.2 trillion stimulus option suggested by White House adviser Christina Romer. But worried that the deluxe option would stall in Congress while also spooking global bond vigilantes, Team Obama went with the mid-sized approach.
The administration didn’t count on the recession being far worse than it anticipated, driving the unemployment rate toward double digits. So while the stimulus plan was effective enough to help nudge the economy away from depression in the second quarter — it’s tough to spend a trillion dollars with absolutely zero short-term impact — and into mild recovery mode during the third, it wasn’t nearly powerful enough to ignite a V-shaped recovery.
Indeed, during the first quarter of the last 10 economic recoveries, real GDP rose a far more impressive 5.8 percent on average. For instance, the first five quarters of the Reagan Boom coming out of the 1981-82 recession showed GDP growth of 8.1 percent, 9.3 percent, 8.1 percent, 8.5 percent, and 8.0 percent.
There was another, better path Obama could have taken. In a new study, Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna conclude that fiscal stimuli based upon tax cuts are more likely to increase growth than those based upon spending increases. The Obama stimulus was two-thirds spending and one-third tax cuts or credits. And of course tax cuts thought more permanent by Americans could have produced a large impact on working, savings and investing – and powerful economic growth.
Romer herself has conducted research showing the economic oomph that tax cuts produce. And there’s research from economist Robert Barro who found that “a one-percentage-point cut in the average marginal tax rate raises the following year’s GDP growth rate by around 0.6 percent per year.”
As it is, Democrats are saddled with an economy that may not grow fast enough over the next year to substantially bring down the unemployment rate, if at all. So now there is a new wager in Washington: Just how bad will Democrat losses be next year?