Dissocoiative Press, Oct. 29, 2012
Credit: Chase Woodruff | dissociativepress.com
In little more than a week, Americans will vote in what is being called — yet again and (probably) accurately — the most important presidential election in our lifetimes. The choice is stark. The basic argument for President Obama’s reelection holds that a four-year term has not been enough to undo the unprecedented fiscal and economic damage done by or during the previous administration, that the country is on a path to recovery, and that a reversion to the same policies that caused or enabled the Great Recession in the first place would be a mistake. The argument for Mitt Romney is, chiefly, that the president is a failure, that he has aggravated the unemployment crisis, besieged businesses with higher taxes, and spent the country further into debt, and that things would only get worse in his second term.
I’m writing this to offer both an endorsement of the former argument and an aggressive, unqualified rejection of the latter. The image of the Obama presidency as some sort of historic calamity is, if not pure fiction — Romney and his campaign have, for reasons noble or otherwise, broken from those on the lunatic fringe of their party who talk of death panels and U.N. conspiracies — then a gross distortion of reality authored by partisan doctrinaires and propagated by an insular but powerful faction of ideological media typified by Fox News and the Drudge Report. It relies almost without exception on cherry-picked data, omissions of fact, biases, innuendos, and, perhaps above all, simple mendacity.
It would of course be impossible to litigate each and every charge leveled against President Obama over the course of the campaign. But on the core issues that should define and decide this election — jobs, the debt, spending, and taxes — the conservative rhetoric upon which Romney has based his campaign is so astoundingly incoherent that it’s actually rather easily refuted. The four charts I’ve included below reflect both the president’s success in addressing the complex set of challenges we’ve faced as a nation over the last four years and the abject inadequacy of the solutions put forth by Romney and the Republicans going forward.
1. On Jobs
Most Americans have a basic understanding of the fact that the proverbial “ship of state” moves slowly, that a president’s policies often take time to be implemented and produce results, and that this holds particularly true for prescriptive macroeconomic policy. Most would also acknowledge that the realities of government make it impossible for a new president to assert full executive authority from Day One; Cabinet secretaries and other high-level staff must be vetted and confirmed by the Senate, and in all nearly 8,000 civil service positions are filled by presidential appointment, some of which can remain vacant for up to a year. And it certainly can’t be denied, try as anyone might, that Barack Obama took office in the middle of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.
About all of which the Romney campaign could give a shit, apparently. He and his surrogates have spent the entire campaign cycle repeating that the president has presided over a “net job loss” during his first term — or, as he put in the second debate, that “we have fewer people working today than we had when the president took office.” In addition to no longer being even technically accurate — as of September, there has been a net gain of 125,000 jobs created over the course of the president’s time in office — this is a cynical and profoundly dishonest manipulation of the economic reality faced in the first months of the Obama presidency. If you except the job losses in just the first six weeks of his term — for which no one in their right minds could blame a president who’d just assumed office — that net gain rises to more than a million jobs; except the first six months, and that figure becomes well over two million. And beyond any dispute, as shown by the chart above, is the fact that President Obama has presided over 31 consecutive months of job growth.
Only through a stubborn, calculated ignorance of the destruction wrought in the months before Obama took office is it possible to believe that his jobs record is disqualifying. (A popular line of argument among conservatives rests on the claim that the administration itself projected that unemployment wouldn’t rise above eight percent; they omit the fact that said projection, made the month Obama took office in a report by two of his economic advisers, was based on GDP data — the best available at the time — which underestimated the severity of the recession almost by a factor of three.) The foundational strategy of Romney’s campaign is to encourage and exploit such ignorance as much as possible; if it works, his estimation of the American electorate as amnesiacs and rubes will have been validated.
2. On the Debt
Generally speaking, it’s bad for a country to have a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 50%, and over 75% is considered a real danger zone. Last year, the United States’ rose above 100% for the first time since World War II. The debt stands at $15 trillion, and we’re adding another trillion or so to it every year; in order just to stop it from growing, we’d need to cut federal spending by almost a third. But since we need not only to stop its growth but reduce its size to sustainable levels, we’d need to cut hundred of billions of dollars more to run a budget surplus and pay down the debt. How do we do that?
One way would be to eliminate all federal regulatory agencies and all Cabinet Departments except Defense, close all of our foreign embassies, rescind all federal employee pensions and veterans benefits, end unemployment insurance, food stamps, and all other social welfare programs, abolish the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits, and cancel all public investment in education, science, technology, transportation, energy, agriculture, and the environment. Get rid of all of these things completely. Oh, and slash Medicare and Medicaid in half.
Or we could, you know. Raise taxes.
If you can look at the chart above and remain convinced that the budget can be balanced and the debt crisis solved through spending cuts alone, you’re in need of a calculator, or else of casting aside whatever Paulite anarcho-libertarian sugar plums dance in your head in defiance of the realities of 21st-century, non-medieval era governance. Absurdly, Romney talks about balancing the budget in the context of cutting funding for things like Planned Parenthood (annual government outlay: $363 million, accounting for approximately one one-hundredth of one percent of federal expenditures) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($420 million). The so-called Ryan plan, revered by conservatives as if it were a new Magna Carta, would entail unimaginably drastic cuts to programs for the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, and wouldn’t even balance the budget until 2040. The Republican approach to the debt crisis is — in a word — unserious. They don’t really have a plan to reduce the deficit; they just have a plan to win an election.
3. On Spending
Those who accept the right-wing caricature of President Obama as a tax-and-spender of historic profligacy would no doubt expect this chart to be a U-shaped portrait of his administration’s flight of fiscal recklessness; alas, yet another conservative canard collapses under the weight of reality. That the president has slowed the growth of federal spending even throughout a deep recession and passage of a (necessary and effectual) $717 billion stimulus stands as further evidence of his remarkable success in balancing the country’s short- and long-term priorities against nearly impossible odds.
The constant assertion by Republicans that federal spending has skyrocketed under Obama is accompanied by a telling silence as to where and on what, exactly, all these supposed added dollars are being spent. The lone unequivocal big-ticket item of his term, the 2009 stimulus package, was not an expansionary overreach but an appropriate (and if anything undersized) depression-averting exercise of post-crash Keynesian consensus — opposition to which, in spite of its gospel status in conservative circles, would be laughed out of any introductory macroeconomics classroom. More than a third of its price tag represented tax cuts, and it created or saved, according to CBO estimates, as many as 4.8 million jobs.
Nor does the general characterization of the president as a big-government triumphalist withstand the slightest degree of scrutiny. Obamacare, the cause of so much conservative apoplexia, is, believe it or not, a centrist package of sensible insurance reforms that will actually reduce the deficit by a hundred billion dollars over the next decade. The fiscal impact of another perennial target, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, is also a net decrease in the deficit. The rate of new government regulations approved over the last four years is not appreciably different from the same figures under the Clinton and Bush administrations. The number of people employed by the federal government has grown from 2.78 million in December 2008 to a whopping… 2.81 million today. By almost every conceivable measure, President Obama has in fact curbed, and in many cases halted, the rapid expansion of government which — with hardly a whisper of protest from Republicans, let’s note — took place during the Bush administration.
4. On Taxes
That taxes in this country are too high is considered by conservatives to be something approaching preaxiomatic. By any reasonable and objective standard, that is — are you noticing a pattern here? — false. Thanks in part to a swiss-cheese tax code corrupted by decades of special-interest lobbying, ours is one of the lowest overall effective tax rates in the industrialized world, particularly with respect to the highest-earning individuals and corporations. There is perhaps no better personification of this than Mitt Romney himself, who in 2011 paid just a 14% tax rate on nearly $14 million in personal income.
With the depth and urgency of our debt crisis beyond dispute, Romney’s pledge not only to extend the Bush tax cuts in their entirety but to cut taxes even further, by as much as 20 percent across the board, flies beyond the irresponsible and flirts with the deranged. His contention that he could do so without adding to the deficit is at best a mathematical impossibility and at worst an audacious lie.
For four years now, President Obama has pushed for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the 98 percent of Americans who earn less than $250,000 annually; for four years, Republicans have insisted that any extension include the top two percent of earners as well, essentially holding hostage the tens of millions of taxpayers for whom an extra few thousand dollars per year matters a great deal for the sake of those for whom it doesn’t. Careful practitioners of the art of obfuscatory bullshit, Republicans frame their tax rhetoric in the context of small business and economic growth — but an increased top tax rate would affect just three percent of small businesses, and studies show that over the last 65 years how the top income bracket is taxed has had no correlation whatsoever with the overall performance of the economy.
I’ve chosen the four charts above because they paint a broad and definitive picture of this country’s past, present, and future wholly at odds from that which Mitt Romney and his supporters would have you believe. They are far from the only exhibits in the case for the president’s reelection. If you’re in search of others, I’d point you toward this New York Times graph of the deficit effects of the policy changes made by Presidents Bush and Obama; relatedly, this TPM chart on what drives the national debt; these graphics, compiled by Crooks and Liars, showing the unprecedented level of obstructionism by Republicans that the president has had to overcome; and these, by the Center for American Progress, proving just how low our effective tax rates are; this Economist chart of the Obama presidency’s effect on consumer confidence; this graph from the Energy Information Administration showing the rise in domestic oil production during the president’s term; this chart from Steve Benen showing that the deficit has shrunk to a four-year low; this NYT graph comparing the stock market’s performance during Obama’s tenure compared to his predecessors’; and this pie chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showing that more than nine-tenths of entitlement spending goes to the elderly, disabled, or working households.
There are also, of course, many, many reasons to vote for Barack Obama that can’t be suitably expressed in chart form: perhaps above all, his support for equality and human rights in contrast to the leader of a party that evinces hatred for, or at best intolerance of, the LGBT and immigrant communities; his sober, adult perspective with respect to international affairs in contrast with a challenger who bleats empty rhetoric about “American Exceptionalism” and openly mocks the idea of a “nuanced” foreign policy; the next president’s potential impact on the future of the Supreme Court; the moral case, as capably argued by Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan this week, for protecting universal access to affordable health care and forswearing the practices of torture and preemptive war with which the Republican Party seems so distressingly comfortable; and, not least, the risk inherent in electing as president a man whose positions have “evolved” on issues ranging from abortion and climate change to gay marriage and the health care mandate over the course of his political career, whom even the habitually reserved editors at The Economist called a candidate “without direction and, frankly, character … apparently willing to do or say just about anything to get elected.”
In the end, the choice between these two men may be made by a few thousand souls in Ohio or Virginia or Colorado. None of the issues discussed here may matter in the slightest. History, as always, will be written by the victors, and in the days and months and years to come it will be relentlessly impressed upon us that one agenda or the other will have met resounding approval by the voters in this election. But the truth stands the same today as it will stand next Wednesday: President Obama has not been a failure, and Mitt Romney very likely would be. We’ll soon learn if that truth will out.
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Paid for by United Domestic Workers of America Action Fund