Barack Obama has accused the Republican presidential candidates of defying logic and peddling “fantasy” in telling voters they can cut taxes and government regulations, balance the budget and produce economic growth.
“If you look at the platforms, the economic platforms of the current Republican candidates for president, they don’t simply defy logic and any known economic theories, they are fantasy,” Obama said, in an extensive and at times surprisingly frank reflection on his economic legacy in an interview with the New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin .
The president admits some economic missteps in the interview, including a failure to initiate a significant infrastructure spending project and to sufficiently boost wages. While the economy has grown during the Obama presidency and unemployment has been cut in half, a near record number of Americans have dropped out of the workforce and real median incomes have fallen, while wealth and income inequality have grown.
In other words, the economy is working for some but not working for others. Obama admits as much in the interview:
I can probably tick off three or four common-sense things we could have done where we’d be growing a percentage or two faster each year ... We could have brought down the unemployment rate lower, faster. We could have been lifting wages even faster than we did. And those things keep me up at night sometimes.
The president’s main contention however – made with an insistence that he feels no personal frustration about the matter – is that the political discourse has left the public with an inaccurately dim view of his stewardship of the economy, which when he took office was suffering from the housing meltdown, growing unemployment, a credit crisis inside the country’s biggest banks and the looming potential failure of giant insurance companies.
Culprits for the erosion of this discourse, in the president’s view, include the Republican party, which has incessantly repeated that the economic recovery since 2008 has been too slow while stubbornly refusing to take part in any plan out of the White House to speed the recovery, especially any plan that includes tax hikes. Blame is shared by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, in the view of the president, who dismissed the GOP campaign-trail economic platforms as implausible.
“Slashing taxes particularly for those at the very top, dismantling regulatory regimes that protect our air and our environment and then projecting that this is going to lead to 5% or 7% growth, and claiming that they’ll do all this while balancing the budget,” Obama said. “Nobody would even, with the most rudimentary knowledge of economics, think that any of those things are plausible.”
If we can’t puncture some of the mythology around austerity, politics or tax cuts or the mythology that’s been built up around the Reagan revolution, where somehow people genuinely think that he slashed government and slashed the deficit and that the recovery was because of all these massive tax cuts, as opposed to a shift in interest-rate policy – if we can’t describe that effectively, then we’re doomed to keep on making more and more mistakes.
Obama counts among his regrets a failure to set up a big infrastructure spending project, he told Sorkin:
The fact of the matter is, is that our failure in 2012, 2013, 2014, to initiate a massive infrastructure project – it was the perfect time to do it; low interest rates, construction industry is still on its heels, massive need – the fact that we failed to do that, for example, cost us time ... It meant that there were folks who we could have helped and put back to work and entire communities that could have prospered that ended up taking a lot longer to recovery.
The president does not suffer from an unfairly grim assessment of his own performance, however.
“I actually compare our economic performance to how, historically, countries that have wrenching financial crises perform,” Obama said. “By that measure, we probably managed this better than any large economy on Earth in modern history.”