James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Obama’s bad economic bet may ruin Democrats

Oct 29, 2009 18:19 UTC

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?

COMMENT

Another Kudlow idiot-supply side has ruined this country

Posted by paul nelson | Report as abusive

And after the GDP report ….

Oct 29, 2009 17:37 UTC

Some cold water via economist Dean Baker of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research:

While the growth shown in this report allows us to pronounce the recession ended, it does not provide much basis for optimism about the future. Consumption spending is virtually certain to shrink in future quarters. The same is true of structure investment and state and local government spending. We are unlikely to get much boost from the trade sector or much further boost from defense spending. The only sector that is likely to be a source of substantial growth in the next year is inventories, as the rundown eventually reaches an endpoint. However, with so much weakness elsewhere in the economy, inventories fluctuations will not turn the economy around.

America’s Potemkin Economy

Oct 29, 2009 14:34 UTC

That the US economy has stopped shrinking is certainly good news. But what kind of recovery is this? Strip out Cash for Clunkers and 3Q GDP growth came in at 1.6 percent. Also strip out slowing inventory cuts and GDP would have been just 0.6 percent. Then you have a report that the WH has overestimated the number of jobs created by the stimulus.

More from economist Robert Brusca:

1) But the fact is that inventories are still being cut, not being built up. Although less inventory cutting is a technical boost to GDP the fact of cutting tells us that the economy has not yet turned any corner very sharply.

2) Consumer spending spurted at a 3.4% pace this quarter, spurred important by cash for clunkers. But that program has come and gone and spending levels have SUNK BACK. So consumption is not yet on a strong sustainable expansion path.  … Cash for clunkers carried the quarter. It’s gone in Q4 and spending levels will recede, with GDP growth taking a hit. Will other spending pick up and compensate?

3) Business investment spending was a net negative this quarter and commercial real estate is under pressure – it will be no source of growth. Still business spending on equipment and software turned positive for the first time in six quarters.

4) Government spending rose by 2.3% the fifth highest rise in the last seven quarters. This is not a very good return on our stimulus monies spent. About three-quarters of a trillion dollars has been spent and with no discernable impact on GDP or on jobs.

COMMENT

We won’t enter a real recovery until we move from consumption mode to production mode. We produce little if anything of any real value. We make nice nick knacks but that’s about it. We can’t cure Cancer, AIDS, dementia, or anything else with a “financial product”. But we can sure watch others out perform the US in these areas with stunning clarity on a nice plasma screen tv made over seas.

We are magnificent killers. Our military is probably the best in the world. But that’s pretty much the only thing we’re any good at. Or at least, that’s the only thing we show the world we’re good at.

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