President Obama was in Ohio on Wednesday, and, let’s be up front about this, he sounded a little cocky. Speaking at the City Club of Cleveland, he had some fun at the expense of his Republican critics and their alarmist predictions about the disastrous impact his policies would have on the U.S. economy.
“One Republican in Congress warned our policies would diminish employment and diminish stock prices. Diminish stock prices,” the President said, summoning his most dismissive tone. “The stock market has doubled since I came into office. Corporate profits are—corporate balance sheets are stronger than they have ever been—because of my terrible business policies.” At this point, Obama was interrupted by laughter, but he was only getting started. “One Republican senator claimed we faced trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see,” he went on. “Another predicted my reëlection would spike gas prices to $6.60 a gallon. I don’t know how he came up with that figure: $6.60.”
The President didn’t pause to point out that, since late last year, gas prices have been below $2.50 in many parts of the country. He was too busy jabbing at Mitt Romney and John Boehner. “My opponent in that last election pledged that he could bring down the unemployment rate to six per cent by 2016—next year,” Obama said. “It’s 5.5 now. And right here in Cleveland, the leader of the House Republicans—a good friend of mine—he captured his party’s economic theories by critiquing mine with a very simple question: ‘Where are the jobs?’ he said. ‘Where are the jobs?’ I’m sure there was a headline in the Plain Dealer or one of the papers—‘Where Are the Jobs?’ ”
The answer, of course, is that they are being created at a rate not seen since the late nineteen-nineties, which just happens to be the last time a Democrat occupied the White House. Since 2010, twelve million new jobs have been created—Obama didn’t omit to cite that figure—and the unemployment rate has dropped from 9.9 per cent to 5.5 per cent. And that’s not the end of it.
Even accounting for the roughly five million jobs that were lost during the Great Recession and its aftermath, about seven million more Americans now have work than when the President took office, in January, 2009. The budget deficit sits at 2.8 per cent of G.D.P., less than it was in the last year of the Bush Administration, when it was 3.1 per cent. Stock prices and corporate profits, as Obama pointed out, have never been higher. To be sure, he didn’t create the surge in U.S. energy production that prompted Saudi Arabia to let the price of oil plummet, thereby putting smiles on the faces of American motorists. But nor did he do anything to prevent it, despite calls from environmentalists to do so. Republican claims that his policies would send gas prices soaring turned out to be wrong, and it was fair for Obama to remind people of that fact.
In short, the President has earned his lap of honor, even if he is taking it a bit early. He seemed to speak with a purpose that went beyond grandstanding, though, which came through when he called out Republicans for their dogged refusal to move with the times. “Their theory does not change,” he said. “It really doesn’t. It’s a theory that says, ‘If we do little more than just cut taxes for those at the very top, if we strip out regulations and let special interests write their own rules, prosperity trickles down to the rest of us.’ ”
Perhaps Obama was laying it on a bit thick. But in highlighting Republican obstreperousness, he was also highlighting the political reality in Washington and laying down some foundations for the 2016 Presidential race. For all the talk of a new generation of “reformicons” emerging within the G.O.P. to advocate for new thinking on economic policy, and despite some Republican politicians acknowledging that they need to have something to say about income stagnation and rising inequality, the bulk of the Party—and that includes most its candidates for 2016—seems to be stuck in a Reaganite time warp.
Exhibit A: Jeb Bush. Speaking in Detroit last month, the former Florida governor made an early pitch to middle-class voters, saying, “Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin. And many more feel like they’re stuck in place: Working longer, and harder, even as they’re losing ground.” But Bush didn’t present any new policy proposals, and, speaking in South Carolina on Tuesday, he said he’s in favor of abolishing the federal minimum wage, arguing that the existence of a national wage floor makes it “harder and harder for the first rung of the ladder to be reached, particularly for young people, particularly for people that have less education.”
Now, declaring opposition to minimum-wage laws—or proposing leaving them to the states, which seems to be what Bush is calling for—isn’t an outlandish position for a G.O.P. Presidential candidate to take. Indeed, ever since 1962, when Milton Friedman argued, in his book “Capitalism and Freedom,” that the consequences of minimum-wage laws “are precisely the opposite of those intended by the men of good will who support it,” this has been a point of agreement among conservative Republicans. But that’s Obama’s point: The Republicans don’t change. They just reheat the old sauce.
Exhibit B: the new House G.O.P. budget, which, its sponsors say, would balance the budget in ten years. I won’t bore you with the details of this measure, which, on Thursday, got the approval of the Budget Committee. But take it from me, or, rather from Howard Gleckman, an analyst at the non-partisan Tax Policy Center: “It is impossible.”
That means it’s mathematically impossible, not politically impossible—although, with Obama in the White House, it’s that too. The new proposal incorporates big tax cuts skewed toward the rich, unspecified cuts in spending, flaky revenue estimates, and a massive and implausible overhaul of Medicaid and Medicare—not to mention the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It closely resembles previous Republican budgets that weren’t serious tax-and-spending proposals either, but broad political manifestoes hewed out of the tattered old doctrine of supply-side economics.
In his speech in Cleveland, Obama made fun of this, too. He recalled how one Republican had told him that “she couldn’t agree with me more that we need to be helping working moms and dads more. Another wrote a policy memo saying that Republicans must define themselves as the party of the American worker, the party of higher wages.” The problem the Republicans have, the President went on, is that “the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. The walk doesn’t sync up with the talk. And all you have to do is look at the budget that House Republicans put forward just yesterday,” which “doubles-down on trickle down.”
Yes, it was just a politician criticizing his opponents, and seemingly taking great pleasure in it. On this occasion, though, Obama had reason to crow. The Republicans are making it easy for him.