Articles

The Messes Obama Will Leave Behind

April 29, 2015

At last Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama declared he was determined to “make the most of every moment” left in office, saying he had been working on a “bucket list” that included executive action on immigration and climate regulation. Aware that his critics believe he’s often acted lawlessly, Mr. Obama joked that the title for his list rhymes with “bucket.” 

Regardless of what items Mr. Obama checks off, he will leave to his successor a staggering array of domestic problems, some he ignored and many he made worse. 

Slow economic growth will be at the top of the list of problems. The pattern of American history has been that the more severe the recession, the stronger the recovery. Until now. In Mr. Obama’s recovery, average annual growth has been the slowest since the U.S. began compiling reliable economic statistics near the 20th century’s beginning—a feeble 2.9%. This year is off to an even slower start, with GDP growing 0.2% in the first three months.

The number of jobs also will be on that list. It took from June 2009 to April 2014—nearly five full years—to get back to having the same number of people working as when the recession began in December 2007. That’s a longer period of time to return to the starting point than in any recession in U.S. history. Meantime, roughly 14.7 million people came of age without a job available. The last time the job participation rate was this low was 1978. A third of Americans between 18 and 31 last year were living with their parents, the highest percentage in at least four decades.

The quality of jobs available will be another topic on that list. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 4.5 million Americans were working part time for economic reasons in December 2007, meaning they could not find full-time work. Last month the number was 6.6 million—a 46% increase. More part-time workers are getting fewer than 30 hours a week, in part probably because of ObamaCare.

Then there is the size of Americans’ paychecks. Inflation-adjusted median household income has dropped, from $54,059 in 2009 to $51,939 in 2013 (the latest year available), the only time this has happened during an economic recovery. The president who harps on inequality as a “defining issue of our time” has demonstrated that the middle class fares badly under progressive economic policies.

Mr. Obama will also leave behind a difficult economic climate in which to start a business. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, every year of his presidency more American businesses have died—closed, merged or gone bankrupt—than have been created. 

The national debt has risen to 74.1% today from 40.8% the month he took office. This is the largest increase in a six-year period since World War II. The Congressional Budget Office says that within 25 years the public debt will exceed 100% of GDP unless Washington changes its policies. 

The ballooning debt reflects the administration’s—and the Democratic Party’s—deficit spending. Mr. Obama compliments himself on reducing the deficit to 2.8% of GDP in fiscal year 2014, down from 8.7%, 8.5%, 6.8%, and 4.1% in the proceeding fiscal years. But 2.8% only matches the average deficit for the last 50 years, and the decline is attributable in large part to Republicans’ controlling the House since the 2010 midterms and slowing spending. 

Also left for his successor are entitlement programs that will go bust: the Social Security disability trust fund in 2016, the Medicare hospital trust fund in 2030 and Social Security’s Old Age and Survivor’s trust fund in 2032. The president squandered six years by refusing to make modest reforms to hold down growth in entitlement spending while giving people time to adjust. 

Mr. Obama likes to claim credit for the slower growth in health spending, but economists suggest that is more likely because of the recession and the success of his predecessor’s Medicare reform, which helped seniors with prescription drug costs, resulting in fewer expensive hospital procedures and stays. 

This is only a partial list of the domestic challenges Mr. Obama will pass on to the next president and doesn’t include the long roster of international problems he has created, ignored or messed up.

After this president’s six years in the White House the country is adrift, thanks to leadership that has been mistaken, insufficient or absent. While this is nothing to joke about, it is also a challenge to Republicans to share their own presidential bucket lists—on how they will clean up the mess Mr. Obama will leave.

A version of this article appeared April 30, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The Messes Obama Will Leave Behind and online at WSJ.com.

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