Obama and the Economic Recovery: Keynesian Policies, Gridlock, and the New Global Economy

By Ayodele Aruleba
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03 | pg. 1/1


The Obama presidency will largely be defined by the administration’s ability to respond to the unique and historic challenge facing the country at the time of his inauguration: the Great Recession. This paper evaluates the president’s success throughout both of his terms in enacting an economic policy, which was largely defined by an embrace of Keynesian economics and more stringent regulations on the financial services industry, but simultaneously highlights the institutional limitations facing the president on influencing the economy. By assessing the administration’s efforts across three key metrics—ability to garner congressional support for his policy agenda, the empirical impact that measures have had on salient economic variables, and the public’s perception of his handling of the economy—it becomes clear that the president has been least successful in effectively communicating the benefits of his actions to the public. Although the state of the economy is inarguably stronger than when President Obama took office in early 2009, the rise of technology in our new global economy, and the aggressive Republican opposition he faced at all levels, makes detailed study of his economic policy integral to a complete understanding of his legacy.

The economic recovery is a major focal point as we analyze President Barack Obama’s role in stabilizing the economy after the Great Recession. Of all the policy areas where the president is expected to provide a comprehensive agenda on in the post-war era, assessing the empirical impact of presidential economic policy is extremely difficult. In light of this difficulty, however, President Barack Obama has been effective in working within the American system of separated powers to rescue financial markets and stabilize the economy for steady growth, but has been much less successful in translating the beneficial impacts of his administration’s decisions to the public persuasively. Since the 2010 midterm election defeat for his party, he has been faced with the significant challenge of leading a divided federal government in a time of great political polarization. Through my comprehensive evaluation of changes in a number of economic variables, including job growth, unemployment, and median household income, the American economy is inarguably in a better place than when Obama took office.

The economic policies of the Obama administration were byproducts of a political climate dominated by the economic free-fall that was the Great Recession. This paper highlights some of the limitations that face the institution of the president in making economic policy, while also providing the background and empirical data that set the scene of the 2008 election. The bulk of my research is dedicated to evaluating if Obama’s approach to economic policymaking in his first and second terms were effective along three key metrics. In adopting UC Santa Barbara researcher M. Stephen Weatherford’s methodology of evaluating presidential economic policy which emphasizes comparability across shared dimensions, my research focuses on Obama’s ability to gain congressional backing of his proposals, the identifiable impact that those policies have had on the economy, and the public’s perception of how he has handled the economy and affected their lives.1

Presidential Limitations on Influencing the Economy

Policy responses to economic crises are strongly defined by path dependency, but “the actions that cumulate to a change in the path of development are not foreordained, but the result of identifiable decisions whose outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty.”2 The successful exercise of presidential leadership is shaped by situational factors outside of the direct control of the president, and less by the personal attributes of each incumbent.3 In a free-market political and economic system, gross domestic product (GDP) and other key economic variables are largely driven by business fixed investment, and spending on consumer durables. The president can support economic growth through fiscal policy enacted by Congress, indirectly through monetary policy made by the presidentially-appointed Chair at the Federal Reserve, and through executive actions. Nevertheless, there remains major limits on the direct impact that presidential policymaking can have on the economy. Private sector decisions to outsource elements of the value chain in production processes to lower wage countries are not prohibited, and a president has “less power than ever” in a “hard-power (legal/regulatory) or soft-power (cultural) sense, over American chief executives, let alone over the chief executives of multinationals based in France or China or other places where many U.S. employers make their headquarters.”4 However, President Trump may help to usher in a new relationship between the most senior leaders of the federal government and the business community by continuing negotiations with American corporations to limit outsourcing, similar to the deal he struck with Carrier in November 2016, and assembling the wealthiest cabinet in modern American history.5 6

The Great Recession & 2008 Election

Following financial sector deregulation in the late 1990s, there were several fundamental vulnerabilities in the financial system which left regulatory and supervisory gaps to be exploited by the financial services industry, ultimately leading to the largest economic recession since the Great Depression. Having served as Fed Chairman from 2006 to 2014, Ben Bernanke explained some of those key vulnerabilities in his April 2012 address at the "Rethinking Finance" Conference in New York City. In the private sector, there were high levels of leverage, excessive dependence on unstable short-term funding, deficiencies in risk management in major firms, use of exotic and nontransparent financial instruments that obscured concentrations of risk (shadow banking), and the losses from housing and mortgage crises crushed the financial system in an unprecedented way.7 Also, public sector regulatory agencies failed to supervise the “shadow banking” industry, apply existing rules and regulations, and were oblivious to threats against overall systemic stability.8 In the dot-com stock collapse of the late 1990s, losses were spread relatively across many types of industries, in contrast, the housing and mortgage bust was concentrated among “highly leveraged banks, broker-dealers, and securitization vehicles.”9 Although Baby Boomers suffered from the recession’s timing as they were looking to draw from their retirement accounts, Millennials entered the labor force with lower starting salaries, which could snowball into a lifetime of depressed wages, and the 46 million Gen Xers at the height of their professional careers had their promotions suppressed while facing increased dependence from the rest of their family.10 Surely, each generational demographic can make the case for their unique harm resulting from the economic downturn.

Officially lasting between December 2007 and June 2009, the Great Recession tested the resilience of the American economy and the power of the executive branch, the Federal Reserve, and congressional leaders to collaborate and slow the rapid economic descent. The 2008 fourth quarter GDP growth rate was -8.1 percent, the unemployment rate rose faster than during the previous two recessions, long term unemployment (27 weeks or longer) reached much higher levels and persisted, “more than eight million Americans lost their jobs, nearly four million homes were foreclosed each year, and 2.5 million businesses were shuttered.11 12

By the power vested in the federal government through the Employment Act of 1946 to limit unemployment and inflation, but stopping just short of fully embracing Keynesian theory, the stage was set for “the biggest expansion of the central bank’s power in its 95-year history.”13 This was evidenced by the $85 billion government takeover of one of the world’s largest insurers, American International Group (AIG), in September 2008 and later monetary policy positions orchestrated by the Federal Reserve—which continues to justify low interest rates by reminding the public of the necessities of their response to the 2008 financial collapse.14 15 President Bush was briefed after Fed Chairman Bernanke, New York Fed President Timothy Geithner and Treasury Secretary Paulson had concluded that federal assistance was needed to avert an AIG bankruptcy, but these actions raise questions about the proper role and constraints on an independent central bank in a democratic polity, and were an inflection point for US and global monetary policy.16 Following the Great Depression, “citizens came to expect that the government would manage the economy to ensure a pace of growth vigorous enough to foster productive employment for a growing population, and a path of growth steady enough to avoid the ruinous lurches from boom to bust that had typified the economy since the nineteenth century.”17 This is the environmental reality that Senators Obama and McCain were faced with during their 2008 campaigns for the presidency.

Although both candidates supported Bush’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which purchased toxic assets and equity from financial institutions to strengthen the financial sector, Obama and McCain offered divergent diagnoses and prescriptions on how the country could overcome this formidable challenge. Obama blamed the crisis on deregulation, and McCain placed the blame on the lobbyist class of Washington DC. Senator Obama’s economic proposals included a moratorium on foreclosures, tax relief for individuals and businesses, adjustments of IRA and 401(k) withdrawal rules, aid for state and local government, and programs to stimulate job growth.18 After winning the 2008 election with a campaign built on “Hope and Change,” President Obama was faced with the daunting task of orchestrating economic stabilization, and subsequently, positioning the American economy for a recovery.

Obama Term One

Obama’s overall approach to stabilizing the economy is defined by an embrace of aggressive government intervention in line with Keynesian theory, tax relief for small business, and robust regulation with continued oversight of financial markets. In evaluating his policies across three key metrics: ability to garner Congressional support of initiatives, their impact on the economy, and the public’s perception of his priorities and actions, it is important to distinguish between valence issues and position issues. Valence issues are those that have large bipartisan support and thus have the potential to cement large electoral coalitions, and position issues are those in which parties compete for voters’ support by taking opposing positions on policy remedies.19 Economic growth (GDP) is widely accepted as a valence issue. Furthermore, small businesses make up 99.7 percent of employer firms and 64 percent of net new private sector employment, strengthening the argument that tax relief for small businesses that Obama advocated for early on in his first term is a valence issue, used as a tool to garner broad support for his economic agenda.20

Within months of taking office, Obama took three major actions to stabilize the economy: ordered the nation’s largest 19 banks to undergo stress tests on their ability to endure further economic deterioration, established the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) to help up to four million families modify their mortgages, and enacted an enormous stimulus program.21 At a price of $787 billion (later adjusted to $831 billion), Obama’s economic advisers embrace of Keynesian theory—which argues that aggressive government spending will boost aggregate demand and serve as a stimulator to the economy—was evidenced by his first piece of large scale legislation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 aimed to preserve and create jobs, assist those most impacted by the recession, provide investments in science, health, transportation, environmental protection and infrastructure, and stabilize state and local government budgets.22 In advocating for the bill during his first month in office, Obama argued that “we must move swiftly and boldly to put Americans backs to work, and that is exactly what this plan begins to do.”23

The stimulus bill kept two of his core campaign promises: providing aid for vital local and state government employees like firefighters and police officers, and taking action to stimulate job growth after the drastic job losses incurred throughout the recession. Although Obama’s campaign appeal was defined by a desire to elevate above partisanship and reach across the aisle, it is worth noting that the bill passed the House of Representatives with zero GOP votes.24 His ability to garner congressional support of the stimulus was ultimately successful because of Democratic Party control of both houses, but his meetings with Republican leaders to develop bipartisan consensus on the bill’s details is better described as a compromise. Additionally, there was discord within the Democratic caucuses as House and Senate Democrats were split on how to divide $87 billion in Medicaid relief for states.25 Making headlines with the valedictory statement that he was heard to have said in early meetings with GOP leadership, “I won,” Obama held cocktail parties and social events at the White House for congressional leaders. His efforts resulted in a 66-38 roll call vote in the Senate, with three votes from Republican moderates Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.26 This compromise with Republican moderates included the addition of new tax breaks, and reductions in proposed spending levels and overall cost of the package by $30 billion, or four percent of the total bill.27

Unfortunately, however, job growth from the stimulus failed to kick in before the 2010 midterm elections, and because economic contractions induced by financial crises differ fundamentally from ordinary cyclical recessions, recovery was slower and took much longer, generating sustained high unemployment.28 This meant that in 2009 when Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers suggested that as a result of the stimulus unemployment would peak around 8.5 percent, instead, it reached 10.3 percent before subsiding slightly in late 2009.29 Another job stimulating legislative initiative that he pushed, the America Jobs Act of 2011, failed to pass in Congress and would have included $100 billion for roads bridges and schools, and an extension of unemployment benefits, among other measures, but after Republicans took control of the Senate they were “more obsessed with reducing the $14 trillion federal debt.”30 Obama’s efforts to stimulate job growth through government spending were mostly successful in garnering Congressional support, but at the end of his first term unemployment was hovering at 8 percent; his intended effect drastically decreasing unemployment, had not yet materialized.

The second major part of Obama’s multifaceted approach to stabilizing the economy was increased short-term support, and long-term regulation, of the financial services industry. Following the financial market collapse, the Federal Reserve and other nation’s central banks moved quickly to loosen monetary conditions by lowering interest rates to historic levels, and injecting new money into the economy through “quantative easing,” highlighting the indispensable use of monetary policy to affect growth and employment.31 Working closely with leadership at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and the Senate Banking Committee, President Obama successfully enacted the largest overhaul in regulation and oversight of financial markets in generations. Although he supported bank bailouts as a candidate, claiming that they were necessary measure for “emergency economic stabilization,” as the law was aptly titled, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank) passed in July 2010 met his campaign pre-conditions by including provisions to “recover the money, and protect working families and big financial institutions and be crafted to prevent such a crisis from happening again.”32 Passing the House with no Republican votes and receiving three votes from Senate Republicans, again, the vote tally fell short of a semblance of bipartisanship.33

Although some liberals criticized the bill for “leaving so many critical decisions to federal regulators, who missed many of the warning signs before the crisis,” the bill included the establishment of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Financial Stability Oversight Council, liquidation authority, new mortgage rules, derivative regulations, new credit card rules, and commissioned a study of conflicts of interest among credit rating agencies.34 35 The leading evaluations of the impact of these regulations are largely aligned around the partisan divide in the contemporary political discourse, but Dodd-Frank has definitely been effective in meeting its stated objectives of heightened financial regulation. Banks have diversified their portfolios beyond mortgages, and “loans backed by government entities Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) make up more than 90 percent of all new loans today, a historically high share.”36 Although the $75 billion foreclosure prevention fund that Obama unveiled soon after his election fell remarkably short of the administration’s nine million homeowner loan modification goal, home loans being made today are arguably the most pristine in history, and default rates are at record lows.37 38

The third major prong of his economic agenda encompassed support of small business in the form of tax relief and incentives to sponsor growth in America’s largest source of employment. To spur small business spending, Senator Obama promised to eliminate capital gains taxes on investments made by “small and start-up firms,” and the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 (SBJA) negotiated extensions for small business exclusion from the standard capital gains tax of 50 percent through 2011, with some limitations on asset value and holding periods.39 Passing in the brief two year period of Democratic control of both houses in Obama’s first term, the SBJA introduced enhanced loan provisions, commercial real estate refinancing, and promoted exports.40 As a result of the law and provisions in the stimulus, the federal government went from guaranteeing 85 percent of loans at or below $150,000 and 75 percent of larger loans to guaranteeing up to 90 percent of all loans under new Small Business Administration programs.41 Additionally, the stimulus increased minority, women, and veteran owned businesses’ access to capital by providing $14.7 billion in small business loans with 20 percent, 19 percent, and nine percent of the funds going to each respective groups.42 More recently, business entered 2016 with “stronger sales growth, improved profitability and positive hiring trends.”43

Although the president’s first term included most of his major legislative initiatives to buttress growth in the American economy, because of the Great Recession’s massive destruction of wealth and the costly steps that Obama took to avert disaster that expanded deficits and the national debt, average Americans were bound to find these measures alarming and hard to understand.44 The partisan divisions deepened by the debate over the Affordable Care Act, and “failure of the president’s economic programs to reduce unemployment, stem the flood of housing forecloses led Republicans to make their case” in the midterm elections effectively, and resulted in a 2010 “shellacking” that Obama conceded.45 46 Following the midterm elections, Republicans in the 112th Congress were resolved in their opposition to his every initiative. Speaker Boehner argued they would “kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can” and Minority Leader McConnell said “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”47

Over his first term, the percentage of the public that disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy steadily rose, ultimately surpassing the percentage that approved of his actions in late 2009, and peaking at 71 percent in August 2011.48 Obama’s economic policymaking efforts were largely successful in being enacted into law, but in reflecting on his first term, President Obama acknowledged that because they were “moving so fast early on,” his administration failed to explain the actions they were taking to the public, and thus decreased public confidence in his ability to handle the economy.49

Romney’s 2012 Referendum

Republican nominee and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wanted the 2012 election to be a referendum on Obama’s first term. How individuals view the economy—regardless of the empirical data on economic variables—is explicitly tied to how the economy affects themselves. As such, Republican strategists argued that “Obama should have emphasized job creation all along, and now Obama's claim to be addressing the unemployment issue comes across as empty rhetoric.”50 At the height of the general election, more than two-thirds of Romney’s support was against Obama rather than for Romney.51 At the Detroit Economic Club in January 2012, Romney laid out his core argument against the incumbent president: the economy was still faltering. He pointed to the 36 months of unemployment over 8 percent, 24 million out of work, 3 million people dropping out of the labor force, low home values, foreclosures at record highs, and high national debt as evidence.52 As a result of the Republican control of the House with little prospects of taking it back in the 2012 election, Obama’s economic promises were more limited than in 2008 and revolved around dispelling the notion that Americans were worse off than when he took office, creating more manufacturing jobs, and doubling down on 2008 promises of tax reform.53

Obama Term Two

After emerging victorious with 51 percent of the vote, Obama’s second term approach to economic policy presides over increased evidence of the positive impacts of his first term measures, and looks beyond America’s borders to develop a trans-pacific trade deal that would make American exports more competitive in global markets. By many accounts, his second term turned out to be one of the most influential second terms in U.S. presidential history.54 However, beyond the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the scale of his economic initiatives were limited because of his inability to amass support from the Republican-controlled Congress.

One of his 2008 campaign proposals that was delayed because of a short-term focus on economic stabilization was the commonplace Washington call for “tax reform.” In 2012, Obama promised to end tax deductions for companies that shipped jobs overseas. In reality, the tax code does not reward companies for outsourcing, but it does allow for companies to avoid paying U.S. taxes on income generated by their foreign subsidiaries until the firms bring the profits back into the country.55 Obama’s budgets in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 attempted to eliminate those deductions and were also accompanied by tax incentives for locating jobs and business activity within the country, but “Congress has shown no inclination to cooperate with Obama on this effort.”56 This was a part of the overall administration goal to restore the fiscal viability of the social safety net by repealing Bush era tax cuts. On tax reform for individuals, the president was more successful in persuading Congress to increase the tax rate for wealthy Americans. In a compromise with Republican congressional leaders, the tax rate for dividends and capital gains did move to 20 percent, but only for individuals making over $400,000 or couples making over $450,000, falling short of his $250,000-and-above goal.57

Government policy on international trade is one of the few issue areas where mainstream members in both parties often can find common ground. The 60-38 Senate vote on trade promotion authority (“fast-track”) on the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a major second-term legislative victory for the president by giving him sole power over negotiating the trade deal with 11 other signatory nations, eliminating the ability for congressional leaders to make amendments or filibuster. The negotiation process—likely to continue until 2018, and possibly extended to 2021—has been exponentially expedited and the final agreement will be sent to Congress for an up-or-down vote, assuming the sitting president supports the deal.58 Among many other measures, the partnership would level the playing field for American exports by banning child and forced labor, including sanctions for violating environmental protections, and establishing workplace safety standards, and a minimum wage. Although the trade deal has yet to go into effect, the White House hopes to “rewrite the rules of trade to benefit America’s middle class” before our competitors like China “step in to fill that void.”59

The second term is where we see the positive impact that Obama’s actions had on measurable economic variables. The five year White House report on the impact of the stimulus attributed about three percent of GDP growth from late-2009 to mid-2011 to the package, adding that the estimate was in line with the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and private sector forecasters.60 The stimulus improved 42,000 miles of road, 2,700 bridges, and funded 3,000 water quality infrastructure projects serving over 75 million people, and was the largest-ever investment in high-speed rail.61 Although GOP governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida rejected federal money that funded Obama’s vision of interstate high-speed railways comparable to the interstate highway system, “several cities began constructing light rail and streetcar systems with the help of Obama’s transportation department.”62 According to the White House report, the $831 billion in government spending and subsequent fiscal measures brought the total number of jobs created to 8.8 million jobs by 2014.63

To date, over 14.4 million jobs have been added to the economy since the recession, the Dow and S&P have hit record highs, and home prices have finally recovered to pre-crash (2005) highs with the median home price now at $231,000.64 In terms of issues that directly affect the wallets of middle and working class Americans, “average income for the bottom 99 percent grew 3.9 percent in 2015, the best growth in 17 years, according to University of California Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez.”65 In fact, many 2012 Republican campaign promises have been fulfilled under the Obama presidency. Romney promised to bring unemployment down to six percent, and the rate is currently under four percent. Presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann promised to bring gas prices below $2.50 per gallon, but the abundant American oil production facilitated under President Obama’s leadership has brought prices down to $2.20 per gallon.66 President Obama has also made unilateral action in the national movement on raising the minimum wage by issuing an executive order increasing the salaries of federal employees by 1.3 percent in 2016, and another order raising the minimum wage for all workers on federal construction and service contracts to $10.10 per hour.67 68 Despite these positive metrics, there remains a public perception disconnect on the state of the American economy. In Raleigh, North Caroline campaigning for his wife in the 2016 primary election, former President Bill Clinton noted that “people are upset, frankly; they’re anxiety ridden, they’re disoriented, because they don’t see themselves in that picture.”69 Economic inequality has grown worse in the past eight years, the top one percent has taken in more than half of the recent gains in income growth.70

Figure 1

Figure 1. Source: Gallup.48

The majority of the American people have disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy throughout his presidency, with an average of 57.2 percent disapproving throughout his second term (see Figure 1).71 Additionally, we can see a slight increase in the public’s perceptions of his economic leadership starting in mid-2015, which I would attribute to two main factors: the contrast between the leading candidates for president in both parties (who had historic levels of unfavorable views from the electorate), and President Obama’s personal campaign appearances touting the positive benefits of actions he took as president during the economic recovery.72


Over the past eight years, there have been many positive changes in our economy, but in evaluating the president’s impact on influencing those, we should not discount the major structural changes that have accelerated in our new global economy. Although the president has fallen short of achieving his campaign goal of one million new manufacturing jobs by 2016, manufacturing is the largest and most dynamic sector of the economy, and American exports have broken the record for the fifth year in the row.73 74 75 Automation and offshoring, contributing to declining labor demand have made clear that “uncertainty, insecurity, and risk are pervasive throughout the labor market, and have affected both younger and older workers.”76

These transformations have disproportionately negatively affected working class men and helps in explaining the rise of Donald Trump. In accordance with one of Trump’s campaign messages, 71 percent of Americans believe the economy is “rigged” against them.77 Of the almost 3,000 counties that Trump won, the sum of their economic activity was only 36 percent of the country’s, meaning Clinton won nearly two-thirds of the American economy, highlighting the great economic polarization and concentration that divides our country and has permeated our political system.78

President Obama’s first term efforts to garner congressional support for his agenda were largely successful because of the presence of Democratic Party control of at least one house in Congress. However, the complexity and pace of his administration’s early actions resulted in a failure to effectively communicate how these actions would make a difference for the average American. By responding to Romney’s referendum by arguing that average Americans were indeed better-off than they were four years earlier, Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney and earned a second term in the White House. Throughout his final term, we begin to realize the numerous economic variables which paint a more positive picture of the American economy. Unfortunately for Democratic candidates in the 2016 election, however, the positive developments in the American economy under a Democratic presidency have yet to be truly comprehended by the electorate. In summary, recognizing that presidents have limited influence over the economy, empirical evidence show that Obama’s policies have influenced our emergence from the Great Recession, but, at two percent annual GDP growth, the economy has fallen short of the average American’s expectation of buoyant growth. That expectation is becoming increasingly unrealistic for developed countries in our new global economy.79


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