The Associated Pressreports that 223,000 jobs were created in April, bringing the unemployment rate to 5.4%. That’s the lowest since the sixth month of the Great Recession in May 2008, indicating that employers are relatively confident about continued growth after a weak January to March quarter.
According to the AP, there are still signs of concern like anemic wage growth (with an increase of just three cents to $24.87 an hour) and revised figures showing that March created about 41,000 fewer jobs than previously estimated. That said, the metrics don’t lie. With a starting point of 10% unemployment in October 2009, President Obama has struggled through years of Republican opposition to virtually every single one of his policy priorities and damn near cut the official number of Americans without jobs in half. For a president faced with a do-nothing Congress, a series of meaningless scandals and budget cuts designed to hobble and distract federal agencies, and occasional backstabbing from his own party, this is a pretty good record.
There are still very serious problems with the U.S. economy, mainly to do with lagging wages and a declining labor force participation rate (though the latter problem has stabilized). Household wealth for regular Americans is likely still far behind pre-recession levels, and high debt levels will ensure that the middle class continues to get a raw deal for the foreseeable future.
But it’s one thing to say that economic situation facing many Americans remains unacceptable. It’s quite another not to concede that President Obama entered office when millions upon millions of citizens were in economic freefall and not only staunched the bleeding but helped expedite the healing process. Without congressional approval, there’s probably not many more things the POTUS could have done. But several of his major accomplishments — from bailing out the Detroit auto industry, helping pass TARP, spearheading the $831 billion 2009 stimulus program to letting the Federal Reserve do its job without Republican interference — contributed immensely to the turnaround we see now.
In fact, if anything, the president’s problem has been being too conciliatory towards his right-wing critics. As Quartz’s Matt Phillips wrote earlier this year, GOP-forced budget cuts and intransigence like the fiscal cliff/debt ceiling debacle cost average Americans dearly by putting a major drag on growth. The president probably did cede too much, especially with sequestration, which by some estimates caused severe job loss. The stimulus was much too small. One of his biggest failings, the Justice Department’s unwillingness to go after the fraud-ridden financial institutions that cause the whole mess in the first place, will probably haunt us for decades.
However, the United States avoided the kind of austerity that is stillravaging much of Europe, due largely to the one man in the Oval Office holding the line against the deficit buggery busy sending half of the European continent into the poorhouse. Forestalling an economic catastrophe that would make Greece’s ongoing woes look like an audition reel is nothing to scoff at. Americans graduating college this year will likely be able to get jobs.
This kind of turnaround is virtually impossible to imagine under a Republican president, or if Americans had elected a more conservative Democrat willing to concede to bigger budget cuts. Phillips, critical of the spending cuts the GOP managed to squeeze out of the White House, is right to write that “‘it’s not as bad as it could have been’ is never the strongest political message to send.”
In the real world, though, that’s exactly the scenario that faced Obama after the 2010 elections. Considering that fear-mongering Republicans tend to thrive in times of social and economic chaos, holding the line is in and of itself an impressive achievement. If the recovery continues to pick up in the remaining year and a half of Obama’s presidency, the POTUS could ultimately hand over an America that’s ready for some major progress to his Democratic successor.
On the balance, Obama’s done pretty well for an executive that has weathered the worst that the GOP could throw at him and the country. There’s little to suggest that there is much the president could have done but steady the course. It’s hardly been a thrilling performance, but it has been a grueling and thankless task. Countless Americans have a second chance for the first time in years, and they can’t afford to let some Republican nutjob waltz in and burn it all back to the ground again.