With his final day in office barely a month away, President Obama and the members of his administration are, understandably, in legacy-burnishing mode, as evidenced by the release on Thursday of the final Economic Report of the president. Running to 599 pages, the document offers an overall assessment of the economy in its present state, but is largely dedicated to an administration-friendly account of how the country recovered from what the White House characterizes as a “once-in-a-lifetime crisis.”
The report begins with a self-congratulatory introduction from the president that claims, “By nearly every economic measure, America is better off than when I took office. We are in the midst of the longest streak of job growth on record. U.S. businesses have added 15.6 million jobs since early 2010. The unemployment rate has been cut by more than half from its peak, falling much faster than economists expected.”
In addition, the president takes credit for rising home prices, a reduction in the percentage of Americans without health insurance, increased domestic oil production and a reduction in the budget deficit as a share of GDP.
“Most importantly,” he adds, “wages have begun to rise again for working families. In 2015, median household income rose at the fastest rate on record, with the typical family earning an additional $2,800.”
For Republicans, including President-elect Donald Trump, who ran in November’s elections by describing the U.S. as a dystopic hellscape of lost jobs, a crumbling health care system, and out-of-control crime, Obama’s assessment of the state of the economy may ring a little false.
While many of the administration’s successes are hard to deny -- the U.S. really has added all those jobs and wages are rising -- the Obama’s detractors will call for some context. Yes, the economy recovered, they argue, but the pace was historically slow. Yes, jobs have been created, but labor force participation remains low and many people are stuck in involuntary part-time work.
The overall performance of the Obama administration with regard to the economy is now, for the most part, a question for historians. A more pressing concern is how the incoming Donald Trump administration will exercise its authority to shape economic and fiscal policy. And President Obama was not shy about offering his successor some unsolicited advice -- some of it verging on criticism of Trump’s stated preferences on trade and immigration policy.
“It is no secret that our openness to new ideas and inclusivity are part of what make the United States the most resilient economy in the world,” he wrote. “Continuing our technological progress and innovation, engaging with the world economy through trade, and welcoming immigrants and new American families will create shared growth and help define our economy for the coming decades.”
The country “must also promote competition and innovation in the economy and open new markets for American businesses through high-standards trade agreements,” he added, in a clear shot at Trump’s promise to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Obama also ran through a laundry list of Democratic policies that likely won’t go anywhere in a Trump administration, including measures to fight climate change, raise the minimum wage, support unions, and make the tax code more progressive.
Obama appeared to find at least one area of agreement with Trump, urging “smart, long-term investments that raise productivity, like boosting funding for infrastructure and research and development,” a plan Trump has claimed to embrace.
The president closed by saying, “Over the past eight years, our country has come back from a once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis and emerged even stronger. For all the work that remains, a new foundation has been laid. A new future is ours to write. I have never been more optimistic about America’s future, and I am confident that this incredible journey that we are on as Americans will continue.”
The message of optimism may seem a little difficult to believe, given that he is just weeks away from handing over the White House to a man he once described as “unfit to serve as president” and “woefully unprepared to do this job.”