Commentary | Budget Taxes and Public Investment

President Obama’s policies revived the economy

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This piece originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report’s website

The economy had already lost 4.5 million jobs before President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, with job losses that month alone surging to 818,000. Economic contraction had also accelerated, reaching a staggering 8.9 percent annualized decline in the fourth quarter of 2008—the worst in 60 years. From this downward spiral, Obama’s economic policies proved instrumental in generating and sustaining a recovery.

In February 2009, Obama enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the pace of economic contraction and job loss immediately decelerated. As the stimulus ramped up, sustained economic growth took hold in mid-2009, and job growth resumed early in 2010—with 3.5 million jobs added since February 2010. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that without the Recovery Act, unemployment would have averaged roughly 10.7 percent in 2010, instead of 9.6 percent.

The Recovery Act was intended to jump-start the economy and avert a depression, not to restore full employment. The $831 billion price tag, spread over more than four years, was dwarfed by the staggering loss in economic activity caused by the bursting of the $7 trillion housing bubble. After economic growth resumed, mass unemployment and underemployment compelled more fiscal support. However, passing additional economic support through Congress proved a Herculean task.

In December 2010, the administration negotiated a payroll tax cut, continuation of emergency unemployment benefits, and targeted tax credits to sustain the delicate recovery as the stimulus began winding down. Without this boost, the economy would actually have slipped back into contraction in the first quarter of 2011.

It should be noted that the Federal Reserve also deserves credit for extraordinary measures taken to resuscitate the financial sector and facilitate recovery. But the Fed had already maxed out its key policy lever, the federal funds rate, when Obama entered office; monetary policy could not have single-handedly revived the economy.

While the economy has improved greatly under Obama’s stewardship, creating jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans who want to work remains imperative. In September 2011, Obama proposed the American Jobs Act, which would boost employment by roughly another 2 million jobs, according to numerous outside economists, including Mark Zandi.

Unfortunately, Obama’s substantive jobs agenda continues to be undermined by congressional partisanship. While more must be done to restore full employment, it is unquestionable that President Obama’s economic policies have been instrumental in ending the worst downturn since the Great Depression.