You almost get the feeling, President Obama is pining for his Reagan moment, but unlike the Gipper, he just isn’t getting it. When asked by Steve Kroft how it is Americans just weren’t liking this recovery, the president almost seemed flummoxed.
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“Ronald Reagan used to ask the question,” the president began, "'are you better off than you were four years ago,' and in this case are you better off than you were six years ago? And the answer is the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office.”
Technically, the president is right. Not only has the stock market more than doubled since he came into office, but unemployment is down, and housing has rebounded. Retail sales are stronger than they’ve been in a decade, and U.S. automakers are churning out more cars than ever.
Still, the president’s poll numbers are abysmal. And a lot of that might have to do with voters’ moods, which are similarly abysmal. The simple reality is that while the president can talk of a technical improvement in the economic numbers, most Americans just aren’t buying those numbers. A recent Fox News poll reveals 58% of respondents finding “mostly false” the president’s premise that they are better off than they were in 2008. Only 36% believe his comment is “mostly true.”
Some of this is pretty obvious stuff. Yes, the economy has improved, but not enough for nearly enough Americans. For example, median household income is down, that’s right -- down -- nearly five percent since the president assumed office. That’s not in inflation-adjusted terms; that’s in actual terms -- $54,045 median household income now versus $56,696 in January 2009.
And while housing is off the mat, home ownership is down for the count. Specifically the homeownership rate is down from 67.5% from the fourth quarter of 2008 to 64.7% as of the second quarter of this year.
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That’s not a drastic drop, but it is a drop, and a trend that shows no sign of reversing, especially when a record number of young people -- nearly seven out of 10 -- claim they have no intention of buying a home, and further, no interest in buying one either.
The bloom is off the economic rose, or at the very least, what we used to think made an economy rosy. It wasn’t all that long ago that we equated home ownership with success. Now many young people, perhaps having witnessed the real estate travails of their parents, are showing no interest in repeating those ways -- or getting stuck in a home they cannot sell.
The same applies to young peoples’ views on marriage. Not only are many millennials putting off the ring, they’re dismissing the institution of marriage altogether. Many younger Americans are more interested in joining the workforce than joining any significant other in marriage. And many are finding the prospects aren’t that much more appealing.
The number of Americans not in the labor force has grown dramatically these past five and a half years. Back in January 2009, 80 million Americans weren’t in the labor force. Today, it’s more like 92 million.
To be fair, the total population has climbed in that time, so it’s no mystery, the total number of inactive labor force participants would climb too. Also to be fair, the frustrations Americans feel with this growing chasm between those doing well on the upper end versus the many more on the other end, has been a chronic, if not generational and bipartisan problem under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
What’s ironic is that gap between the rich and poor has widened under this president -- the guy who came to office promising he would address it and reverse it. That’s another reason why people of all ages have soured on Barack Obama -- their perception of their own economic wellbeing has only worsened under his stewardship.
The president acknowledged as much in that “60 Minutes” interview, but when he all but dumped the problem on Republicans for resisting efforts to raise the minimum wage, he apparently turned off more voters than he turned on.
As the Heritage Foundation’s Steve Moore put it: “Government can’t forcibly bring up wages on the bottom” -- only a promising economic environment can do that.
But Moore fears this administration has shown no confidence in or support of free enterprise. Between new taxes and regulations, he says the White House has made business the enemy, not the friend, and certainly not the solution. And going after those companies that seek lower taxes elsewhere through so-called tax inversions, only puts such firms “more” on the defensive.
It’s a hostile environment for business, because many businesses feel Washington has been hostile to them. And it’s not just bankers still reeling from tens of billions of dollars in fines for behavior many insist the government once encouraged. It’s all the other business sectors who are desperately trying to find ways around the high taxes and regulatory environment here that has them beyond discouraged.
The bottom line is fewer individuals and businesses can make their bottom line. To quote a recent Washington Post headline, “the middle class is poorer today than it was in 1989.” And that’s the reality. But it’s been a slow and steady, inexorable reality through Democrats and Republicans. Real median net worth is down, and it’s been heading down through recessions and recoveries alike.
Just think about that -- through a housing comeback and a stock market comeback and a jobs comeback -- the basic balance sheets of Americans isn’t coming back.
That’s why the president gets the reaction he does when he insists things are better. He’s citing statistics that don’t matter to folks who don’t feel them, and get angry every time the president mentions them.
That could explain why not only vulnerable Democratic candidates are avoiding the president this year. Like their constituents, they want nothing to do with him or his words that simply carry no weight here. Anywhere here.