THE BLOG
01/05/2015 07:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Claiming Credit

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

This week President Obama is doing the preparatory work for his upcoming State of the Union speech by visiting three states to tout his successes and build support for the proposals he's likely to make in the big speech. This is all standard politics, really. But Democrats should really join in a loud chorus right now to help Obama achieve the first of those goals: claiming credit for turning the American economy around. This is important for two reasons. The first is that, up until now, Democrats (and Obama) have been too timid to claim much if any credit for the economy, out of fear that it could take a turn for the worse and they'd end up looking like Pollyannas. (Obama already got his fingers burnt on this mistake previously, with the supposed summer of "green shoots," quite a while back.) The second reason it behooves Democrats to claim some credit right now is that Republicans are already chomping at the bit to claim all that credit for themselves.

On a certain level this is all very cynical politics. Even professional economists can't ever manage to agree on what the real relationship is between the business cycle and the things that politicians do. It's a very complex subject, with lots and lots of opinions and very little actual scientific facts (for instance, "X definitively causes Y"). This nebulosity is exploited by politicians, for better or for worse. For worse, presidents and lesser politicians are always quick to lay blame for economic woes at the feet of their opponents. For better, the public usually gives credit for a good economy to whomever is sitting in the Oval Office, whether it is truly fair to do so or not. As I said, it's a disputed subject even among those professionally trained to spot trends. I count myself as largely an agnostic in the debate, because I think politics probably plays a smaller role in the economic business cycle than either party is ever willing to admit.

But that doesn't mean I don't think that politicians should claim credit for economic good times. If the partisan control were switched, the other side would assuredly do it, so why not? If economic times were bad, the other side would certainly use it as a political club to beat on Democrats. All this means that Obama and the Democrats really should be out there tooting their own horns on the issue, no matter how deserved the credit may truly be. (As previously mentioned, you can call this incredibly cynical of me if you wish.)

President Obama was sworn into office six years ago this month. He inherited an economy in free fall. It didn't bottom out until well into the first year of his term. But since that time things have gotten measurably better. It may not have happened quickly enough for some, and the economic pickup still hasn't reached everyone, but things have gotten better; that is now an inarguable fact.

When Obama took office, we were losing an astounding 750,000-plus jobs every month. That's three quarters of a million jobs every four or five weeks. Last month we added over 300,000 jobs in a single month, and this Friday the unemployment numbers for December will be released. If they are as positive as November's numbers, it will usher in a much more optimistic future in the political world. America added more jobs in 2014 than it has in over a decade. (Look for this to be a big bragging point for Obama soon.) The unemployment rate hit a maximum of 10 percent in 2009 and is now at 5.8 percent (and may be even lower in the numbers to be released this Friday). When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he promised to get unemployment below 6 percent -- by the end of his first term. Barack Obama achieved that in less than two years' time.

The stock market is higher than it has ever been. It has grown in value by more than 100 percent since it hit rock bottom. Gas prices are nearing (or below) $2 a gallon at the pump. That right there is an enormous boost to tens of millions of paychecks, because it is such an immediate boost to the money in people's pockets. America is now the largest producer of oil in the world; we have passed even Saudi Arabia. That is going to change the geopolitical map in huge ways, some of which can't even be foreseen at this point. But, getting back to the pocketbooks of the American public, it's hard to overstate the effect of cheap gas on the way people see their own economic lives. This is also reflected in consumer confidence, which (by one measure) is now more positive than negative -- the first time that's happened since the Great Recession began. Obamacare continues to prove all the big Republican scaremongering talking points wrong; its implementation (now in its second year) did not crash the economy and did not cause a massive loss of jobs. Last year was the best year for job addition in quite some time, meaning Republicans were just flat-out wrong in all their doom-and-gloom predictions.

The light at the end of the tunnel for the economy is no mere bright dot seen far off in the distance. It's right in front of us, in fact. It is imperative that President Obama and the Democrats point this out right now. Sure, everyone's not back on their feet. Sure, there are still plenty of economic measures that haven't reached a full recovery. But look for Obama to be introducing programs that begin to address such lingering problems as wage stagnation and income inequality. They may not go anywhere in the new Congress, but they'll certainly help Democrats build their case in 2016. For the time being, Democrats need to point out that they're turning over to the new Republican Congress an economy that is doing very well -- better than at any time in the past six years. They need to lay this down as a benchmark that they can later point to, no matter what happens.

If the economy continues to improve and actually starts booming, Democrats will have already taken credit for fixing the Great Recession. If there's a downturn, then Democrats can make the case that the congressional Republicans screwed up a good thing. It might not help, because, as I mentioned, presidents tend to get most of the blame for bad times. But when the subject is later debated on the campaign trail, it's certainly worth pointing out that things were humming along at the start of the Republican Congress.

Republicans are itching to claim all this credit for themselves. They're already floating the line "The economy picked up in anticipation of Republicans running Congress," even though it ignores the previous four or five years. This masterful spin job could actually work; Republicans are almost never shy about claiming credit for themselves (earned or unearned) for good things that happen. Democrats need to take a page from the Republican playbook, but the window is fast closing on the opportunity to do so.

President Obama certainly has been reenergized since the midterms. He has come out swinging. He will likely continue to do so this week in his appearances (he's going to begin in Detroit, reminding everyone that he saved the American auto industry), all the way up to the night of the big speech. Democrats should back him up in every interview and appearance they do this month. Democrats should stop being so scared of their own shadows when it comes to claiming some credit for good news. Things are getting better. Things have been slowly getting better for a long time, and now they're getting better at a much faster rate. If things had gone poorly, both Obama and the Democrats would now be getting a bargeload of blame; that is for certain. Since things are going better than that, Democrats need to claim some credit before the Republicans try to grab it all for themselves.

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