Obama's Legend: Reagan Dug Himself Out of a Far Deeper Hole

President Obama hangs his whole campaign narrative on one legend, and it is false. The legend: that Obama began in 2009 from the worst financial hole since the Depression.

Not true. The economic hole in which Ronald Reagan began in 1981 was far deeper.

In January 2009, Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent. Average inflation for the previous year was 3.8 percent. The rate for a 30-year fixed-rate home mortgage was 6 percent.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan inherited an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent and on a steep uptick. The inflation rate was 13.5 percent. And the rate for a new home mortgage was 13.7 percent. The purchasing power of those on fixed incomes had fallen by 30 percent under Carter, throwing millions of seniors and others below the poverty line. There were gasoline shortages and long, long lines at filling stations. Carter himself described the mess the country was in as a “malaise.” Economists had to coin a new word for it, “stagflation”– a supposedly impossible combination of very high inflation with even higher unemployment. Carter based his presidential campaign on raising taxes on millionaires, crusading against “the three-martini lunch” (more likely among TV stars, agents, journalists, and others in the Manhattan crowd than among businessmen; it was a small and petty campaign based on resentment).

Closing out his fourth year in office in 1984, Reagan had brought the unemployment rate down to almost 7.3 percent. By the end of his second term, unemployment was 5.4 percent and the inflation rate had plummeted to 4.3 percent. During his full eight years, the economic incentives he put in place led to the creation of 16 million new jobs and the formation of some 2 million new small businesses. More Americans between the ages of 18 and 65 were employed than ever before, and the labor force had grown to historic proportions, partly because of an unprecedented number of women entering it.

Under Reagan, the gross national product, spurred by incentives rather than punishments, grew by $2.44 trillion, almost 83 percent. In other words, Reagan almost doubled the nation’s GNP — its national wealth and world-leading strength. He increased the amount of revenues through income taxes from $249 billion in 1980 to $413 billion in 1988. The wealthiest 1 percent paid a full 27.6 percent of the income-tax burden (up from 18.9 percent under Carter), and the share of total income taxes paid by the middle class went from 43.7 percent in 1980 down to 37 percent in 1988. The greatest boom in world history was under way, and Reagan’s reelection campaign motto was “Morning in America.”

Closing out his fourth year in office, President Obama has an 8.3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest rate of participation in the labor force in 30 years (63.7 percent), and more Americans out of work and out of the work force than in any of the preceding 30 years. There are also over 7 million more persons in poverty now than when he took office, a jump from 39.8 million to 47 million. And yet he chose “Forward” for his campaign slogan.

Reagan had an unusually high respect for incentives as a spur to job creation. Give people an incentive, they jump through hoops to earn it. They take the risk of forming small businesses by the tens of thousands, and they launch wholly new industries.

By contrast, President Obama seems to hold incentives in contempt. Imitating Jimmy Carter (with predictably similar results), he styles himself a “fairness president,” and sets up policies designed to punish those with incomes above $250,000. His campaign is mostly against millionaires. He will reap less investment, fewer inventions and new job-creating industries, and lower tax revenues paid by the wealthy. He is already producing malaise.

In brief, Reagan dug himself out of the far deeper hole; Obama has not yet dug his way out of his much shallower one.

Feel sorry for President Obama if you wish (he does). But feel more mightily sorry for the president who has to dig out from the ugly pit Obama will leave for his successor.

The next president will inherit the most massive national debt in history, which is pulling down the nation’s future by the weight of a trillion new dollars each year. On top of that, excruciatingly painful unemployment. On top of that, the shamefully unreformed Medicare system doomed, its own trustees say, to go broke by 2024 — just before any Americans under the age of 54 will be arriving into its dark emptiness.

Published by Michael Novak in National Review Online on August 14, 2012