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Why Obama isn't getting credit for the economy

Barack Obama’s term in the Oval Office has been one of the steadiest periods of economic improvement in recent U.S. history.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with where he started. Elected amid the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, Obama took office with an incredibly bleak economic backdrop. The U.S. economy was losing 600,000 to 800,000 jobs every month. The jobless rate skyrocketed to 10 percent by October 2009. It would have been hard for the economy to get any worse.


Jump cut to Friday, when the U.S. Bureau of labor statistics showed the U.S. unemployment rate declined to 4.6 percent in November. That’s the lowest it’s been since August 2007. The economy generated 178,000 new jobs in November, the 74th straight month of positive job growth and the longest such streak on record.

With a record like that, you’d expect Obama’s approval rating — which has been rising overall — to be especially high when it comes to his handling of the economy. But it isn’t. It actually lags his overall approval rating of 54 percent, according to the average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Why? Well, beneath the surface there are still problems with the economy. Though the Great Recession technically ended in June 2009, the recovery has been incredibly slow. That tends to be a feature of recessions brought on by financial crises, economists say. And as a result wage growth has been achingly until last year, when U.S. incomes finally surged.

Also, it should be said that since his efforts in the immediate aftermath of the crisis — things like the auto bailout, and stimulus program which helped keep the economy from falling off a cliff — Obama hasn’t actually been able to do very much to help the economy, given obstruction in the Republican-controlled congress.

In fact, much of the improvement in the economy is probably due to the Federal Reserve’s policy of keeping interest rates super low. So, maybe Americans who do see the improvement in the economy don’t give the White House the credit. (They’d essentially be right.)

More broadly, while the economy did get going again under President Obama, simply restarting the economic engine hasn’t done much—at least until the last year or so—to reverse a decades-long trend toward increasing inequality and erosion of the once-mighty American middle class. Between 2008, and 2014, the share of Americans identifying themselves as “middle class” shrunk by nine percentage points, to 44 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

That’s not just a problem for the economy. Given the role that the middle class has historically held as bastions of political moderation and stability, it’s increasingly clear that this is not just a problem for the U.S. economy, it’s a problem for U.S. society.