Over the summer, Jeb Bush chatted with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, who reminded the Republican presidential hopeful that President Obama occasionally brags about how much better the economy is now compared to when President George W. Bush left office. The GOP candidate was incredulous.
“He’s saying that things are better,” Jeb said. “You know, look, it’s just not true.” The former governor added that the president must be “living in an alternative universe.”
Even at the time, it was a strange line of attack. By every possible metric, Obama inherited an economic catastrophe from Bush’s brother and took effective steps to get the economy back on track. Dan Diamond had a good piece over the weekend noting that Republicans have an even tougher case to make now that the unemployment rate has dropped to 5%.
Six years ago this week, BLS reported that unemployment had passed 10 percent, the first time in decades that the US unemployment rate had hit double digits, and a visible sign of how bad the Great Recession really had become.Obama can now argue that under his watch, unemployment has been cut in half. It’s a striking improvement – especially when measured against Obama’s predecessor.
I put together the above chart to show the unemployment rate over the last quarter-century, and the results probably aren’t what Republicans want to see. H.W. Bush saw unemployment climb nearly two percentage points during his tenure, while Bill Clinton saw the strongest jobs boom in modern American history. W. Bush inherited low unemployment, departed in the midst of a jobs crisis, and watched Obama turn things around.
The Vox report added, “The quick rise and dramatic fall of the unemployment rate during the Obama years is unusual. In the past 50 years, there’s only been one other president – Ronald Reagan – who saw a bigger swing between high and low unemployment during his terms in office.”
I’d add for context that the unemployment never dropped below 5.3% in the Reagan era. It’s 5% now.
Why should voters care? In part because of that Jeb quote from June: there are 15 Republican presidential candidates, and each of them desperately wants Americans to believe President Obama’s economic policies have been a disaster.
What’s more, these same GOP White House hopefuls are equally eager to convince the electorate that the best course of action is to do the exact opposite of what the Democratic president has done. If given a choice between George W. Bush’s economic agenda and Barack Obama’s, the entire Republican presidential field will tell you they prefer the former to the latter.
To borrow Jeb’s phrase, in their “alternative universe,” the United States must move away from the policies that cut the unemployment rate from 10% to 5%. Supply-side tax breaks for the wealthy, lax regulations, and leaving Wall Street alone didn’t work last time, but GOP presidential hopefuls are confident that repeating failure might lead to a different result.
The question these candidates might struggle with, though, is why slashing the unemployment rate in half is a disaster in need of a far-right “fix.”