The rich have done fine under Obamanomics, not so the middle class
President Obama made his fourth or fifth, or maybe it’s the seventh or eighth, pivot to the economy on Wednesday, and a revealing speech it was. We counted four mentions of “growth” but “inequality” got five. This goes a long way to explaining why Mr. Obama is still bemoaning the state of the economy five years into his Presidency.
The President summed up his economic priorities close to the top of his hour-long address. “This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics,” he told his Galesburg, Illinois audience. “When middle-class families have less to spend, businesses have fewer customers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther apart, it undermines the very essence of this country.”
Then the heart of the matter: “That’s why reversing these trends must be Washington’s highest priority. It’s certainly my highest priority.”
Which is the problem. For four and a half years, Mr. Obama has focused his policies on reducing inequality rather than increasing growth. The predictable result has been more inequality and less growth. As even Mr. Obama conceded in his speech, the rich have done well in the last few years thanks to a rising stock market, but the middle class and poor have not. The President called his speech “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class,” but no President has done worse by the middle class in modern times.
By now the lackluster growth figures are well known. The recovery that began four years ago has been one of the weakest on record, averaging a little more than 2%. And it has not gained speed. Growth in the fourth quarter of 2012 was 0.4%. It rose to a still anemic 1.8% in the first quarter but most economists are predicting even slower growth in the second quarter.
We hope the predictions of a faster growth in the second half will be right, but the Obama Treasury and Federal Reserve have been predicting for four years that takeoff was just around the corner. Stocks are doing great, and housing prices are rising, but job growth remains lackluster. What has never arrived is the 3%-4% growth spurt during typical expansions.
The official excuse is that recoveries coming out of recessions caused by financial crises are always slow. But then why have we been told every few months for five years that faster growth would soon be coming? Perhaps readers recall former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s famous 2010 op-ed, “Welcome to the Recovery.” Mr. Obama wants it both ways: Take credit for recovering from recession, but blame that recession ad infinitum for the slow pace of the recovery.
What about the middle class that is the focus of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric? Each month the consultants at Sentier Research crunch the numbers from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and estimate the trend in median annual household income adjusted for inflation. In its May 2013 report, Sentier put the figure at $51,500, essentially unchanged from $51,671 a year earlier.
And that’s the good news. The bad news is that median real household income is $2,718, or 5%, lower than the $54,218 median in June 2009 when the recession officially ended. Median incomes typically fall during recessions. But the striking fact of the Obama economy is that median real household income has fallen even during the recovery.
While the declines have stabilized over the last two years, incomes are still far below the previous peak located by Sentier of $56,280 in January 2008. No wonder Mr. Obama is now turning once again to his familiar political narrative assailing inequality and blaming everyone else for it. He wants to change the subject from the results on his watch.
The core problem has been Mr. Obama’s focus on spreading the wealth rather than creating it. ObamaCare will soon hook more Americans on government subsidies, but its mandates and taxes have hurt job creation, especially at small businesses. Mr. Obama’s record tax increases have grabbed a bigger chunk of affluent incomes, but they created uncertainty for business throughout 2012 and have dampened growth so far this year.
The food stamp and disability rolls have exploded, which reduces inequality but also reduces the incentive to work and rise on the economic ladder. This has contributed to a plunge in the share of Americans who are working—the labor participation rate—to 63.5% in June from 65.7% in June 2009. And don’t forget the Fed’s extraordinary monetary policy, which has done well by the rich who have assets but left the thrifty middle class and retirees earning pennies on their savings.
Mr. Obama would have done far better by the poor, the middle class and the wealthy if he had focused on growing the economy first. The difference between the Obama 2% recovery and the Reagan-Clinton 3%-4% growth rates is rising incomes for nearly everybody.
House Republicans have put a check on Mr. Obama’s most destructive economic policies, but the President could do more to help growth if he crossed party lines to pass tax reform the way Reagan did in his second term, or to work out a budget deal as Bill Clinton did in his fifth year.
Mr. Obama’s only pro-growth proposal is immigration reform, and we’re not sure he wants even that to pass. Judging by the partisan tenor of his Wednesday speech, he may be setting it up to use as a campaign wedge in 2014. If only Mr. Obama understood that before a government can redistribute wealth, the private economy has to create it.
A version of this article appeared July 25, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Inequality President.