After Four Bleak Obama Years, an Opportunity

January 16, 2013

As President Obama prepares to be sworn in a second time, it's a good moment to consider the state of the union during his era.

As of his first inaugural, 134.379 million Americans were working and unemployment was 7.3%. Four years later, 134.021 million are working and unemployment is 7.8%.

In January 2009, 32.2 million people were on food stamps and 13.2% of Americans lived in poverty. Now, 47.5 million receive food stamps and the poverty rate is up to 15%.

When Mr. Obama first took office, Social Security's trustees forecast it would go broke in 2041. Now the forecast date is 2037. Medicare's hospital trust fund will be exhausted by 2024, if not earlier.

On Jan. 20, 2009, the national debt stood at $10.627 trillion—or $34,782 for every man, woman and child. As of Tuesday, it had reached $16.435 trillion, or $52,139 for every American. The public debt was equal to 40.8% of gross domestic product on Jan. 20, 2009. By the end of last year, it had reached 72.8% of GDP and is forecast by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to hit 76.1% this year.

When Mr. Obama assumed office, median household income was $51,190. In 2011 (the last year for which data is available), median household income was $50,054. Household income declined more during the recovery, which began when the recession officially ended in June 2009, than it did during the recession, a first for America.

Last year, an average of 153,000 nonfarm jobs were created each month. At that rate, it will take 26 more months to get back to the number of jobs America had when the recession started in December 2007. Meanwhile, the workforce will have expanded by at least 8.6 million new people for whom there are no jobs.

It's worse for manufacturing. Last year, an average of 15,000 manufacturing jobs were created each month. At that rate, it will take nearly 10 years to reach the number (13,743,000) of such jobs America had when the recession started.

Since the recession ended three and half years ago, the economy has grown an average of 0.4% a year. That compares to 1.6% growth per year for the previous decade (which covered two recessions, including the "great" one), 2.6% growth per year for the previous 20 years, and 3.2% on average since World War II.

To create jobs and growth, Mr. Obama asserts that the federal government has only a revenue problem, not a spending one. But in the last fiscal year before he took office (2008), revenues were $2.524 trillion and outlays $2.983 trillion. This fiscal year, revenues are expected to reach $2.913 trillion—but outlays have jumped to $3.554 trillion.

It's those last data points in particular—outlays and spending—that present both challenges and opportunities for Republicans. Why? Because spending cuts in general and the abstract are popular, while spending cuts in the specific and concrete often are not.

To avoid coming off as just old-fashioned accountants wearing green eyeshades, Republicans will have to make a concerted effort to connect fiscal policy to economic growth and opportunity. Reductions in spending are a means to an end. Too often, Republicans speak as if they're the end in themselves.

Fortunately some party leaders understand this. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan recently spoke of "a vision for bringing opportunity into every life—one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods, and an equal chance for every American." He credited free enterprise for doing more than anything else "to lift people everywhere out of poverty." And Sen. Marco Rubio has marveled that, as a son of a hotel bartender, he could aspire to serve in Congress and argued that "only economic growth and a reform of entitlement programs will help control the debt" that threatens the country's future.

GOP governors have added their voices to this line of argument. For example, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal wrote last month that "America is forever young because America is forever growing, leading the world . . . . All actions taken by Washington should be seen through this simple prism—will this help grow our economy?"

Facts matter, but they're not enough. It's life stories and narratives that capture the public's imagination. That's something every Republican must internalize in the spending wars ahead. We need to move not simply minds but also hearts, to show what the "right to rise" means for every American. There are powerful stories to be told. Republicans better learn how to tell them, passionately and effectively.

A version of this article appeared January 17, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: After Four Bleak Obama Years, an Opportunity, and online at

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