Recessions and records and Republicans ... oh my

"It just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans," Trump said in 2004. He had a point.
Image: People wait to file for unemployment at the Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith on April 6, 2020.
People wait to file for unemployment at the Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith on April 6, 2020.Nick Oxford / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

When Barack Obama became president in January 2009, the Great Recession was already taking a severe toll on the U.S. economy. He and congressional Democrats sought to turn things around with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- or as it came to be known, the Recovery Act -- which became law about a month after Obama's inauguration.

Fortunately, the policy worked, Republican predictions notwithstanding. Just four months after the economic stimulus package took effect, the recession officially came to an end. What followed was an economic expansion that lasted 128 months -- the longest U.S. economic expansion since the government started keeping track in 1854. As part of the same recovery, the U.S. added over 22 million new jobs, with 113 consecutive months of job growth -- also an American record.

Alas, that expansion has come to an end.

The U.S. is officially in a recession, bringing an end to a historic 128 months of economic growth, after the coronavirus pandemic swept the country and shut down the economy. For more than a decade, the American economy seemed to contradict the adage "What goes up, must come down." That ended in February, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER, the agency that identifies periods of economic growth and contraction.

The National Bureau of Economic Research may be an obscure entity to many Americans, but it's widely recognized as the official arbiter for when recessions officially begin and end. As a rule, the NBER delays announcements like these, but given the unusual circumstances, the bureau apparently didn't see the need to wait before acknowledging the current recession that began in February.

There's considerable debate over how long this recession is likely to last, though the Congressional Budget Office projected last week that it could take the better part of a decade for the United States to get to where it was before the downturn.

As for the broader context, CNN's Amanda Katz raised an interesting observation yesterday: "Today's NBER news means that over the last 40 years, a recession has begun under every Republican president and no Democratic presidents."

That's true. Since Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981, there have been five recessions in the United States. They started in July 1981, July 1990, March 2001, December 2007, and February 2020. There have been four Republican presidents over these four decades, and at least one recession began under their respective tenures in the White House.

Over the same period, there have been two Democratic administrations, and the economy grew during both of their presidencies.

I'm reminded of a quote a prominent political figure said on CNN in 2004: "I've been around for a long time and it just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans."

The person who made the observation was, of course, Donald Trump.