Defining indicator of Obama era: Recovery as bad as recession on median income

by Ryan Streeter on September 20, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Pew put out a report on September 12 that got lost amidst the coverage of the Middle East and the subsequent presidential race antics. It focuses on how median income has continued to fall during the “Obama recovery.”

The data jumps off the page as one of the defining indicators of the Obama presidency. There’s really no way around that conclusion. So I devoted my Star column to it today, which I paste in its entirety here:

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture in a presidential race marked by Mitt Romney caricaturing 47 percent of the electorate and Barack Obama lecturing businesses on who’s responsible for their success.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report, “A Recovery No Better than the Recession,” that reminds us there’s a big picture out there. Given the violence in the Middle East and drama in the presidential race, it received little attention.

The report’s headline is based on this disquieting statistic: Median household income in America dropped 4.2 percent between 2007 and 2009, and then another 4.1 percent during the “recovery” from 2009 to 2011.

Modest GDP growth with falling median household income doesn’t feel like much of a recovery for millions of Americans.

President Obama, champion of the middle class, has consistently blamed his predecessor for such bad numbers, even as he has taken credit for the positive GDP growth. The good part of the recovery is his, the bad part is George W. Bush’s.

This doesn’t make much sense, but no matter.

The Pew report raises questions about this view. In the 1973-1975 recession, median income fell 5.7 percent, a full 1.5 percent more than the 2007-2009 recession. But in the two years after the 1970s recession, median income grew by 2.3 percent. Remember, during the Obama recovery, median income fell 4.1 percent.

In the 1980-1982 recession, which President Reagan inherited from President Carter without persistently blaming Carter, median income dropped 5 percent. In the two years after the 1980-1982 recession, median income grew 2.4 percent.

The 1990-1991 recession saw a 4.2 percent drop in median income, the same as our most recent recession. In the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, income dropped another 1.3 percent, which was bad but not as bad as under Obama.

The recession in 2001 saw a 2.2 percent drop in income followed by a 1.3 percent drop during the recovery. Again, this was bad, but not as bad as under Obama.

Aside from post-recession income dynamics, income levels themselves don’t look good. Under Obama median income in America is the same today in inflation-adjusted terms as it was in 1990 — roughly $50,000, approximately $5,000 less than when he was elected.

The poverty rate climbed during the Obama “recovery.” So did the average amount of time an unemployed worker went without work — from 15.1 weeks at the end of the recession to 21.4 weeks during the recovery.

With such historically bad numbers, you’d think a president would flex every strategic muscle he’s got to reverse course. So let’s remind ourselves what Obama spent his time on during the 2009-2011 recovery:

Nearly $800 billion in stimulus, which did more to preserve government jobs than boost private-sector employment and income.

The Affordable Care Act, which drives up the cost of insurance dramatically and discourages small businesses from growing.

Two budgets that every single Democrat in the Senate rejected.

A jobs speech last year before Congress that hardly anyone considered a serious pro-jobs effort.

Dodd-Frank, the benefits of which have yet to outweigh the uncertainty it has created in financial markets.

$46 billion in new regulations, compared to the $8 billion Bush implemented during the same time period.

It’s hard to find anything in Obama’s first term that looks like a plan to increase economic opportunity for the middle class.

It gets no better when you look at Obama’s ideas for taking us — as his campaign would say — forward. He has mainly campaigned on ensuring the rich “pay their fair share.” His convention speech was so devoid of any real ideas that it was sharply criticized even by his allies.

Obama may be likable. He may be cool. He’s a good dad and husband. He’s good at killing terrorists. He’s good at golf. But he has offered absolutely nothing to convince his beloved middle class that the next four years will be any different from the last four.

Romney’s cautious campaign may ensure Obama a victory. It’s too soon to tell. But if track records and evidence matter more than vapid prose and empty promises, it’s not too soon to worry about what four more years of hope and change will bring.

Streeter is Distinguished Fellow for Fiscal and Economic Policy at the Sagamore Institute.