Saturday, May 15, 2010


Ron Brownstein published a paragraph this week that actually seemed hard to believe: "If the economy produces jobs over the next eight months at the same pace as it did over the past four months, the nation will have created more jobs in 2010 alone than it did over the entire eight years of George W. Bush's presidency."


At first blush, it's tempting to think that couldn't possibly be true. The Republican economic policies -- tax cuts for the wealthy, huge deficits, weak recovery, minimal public investment, even less oversight and regulation -- were a spectacular mess that failed miserably. But can 2010 really top the job creation of Bush's entire presidency?

Actually, yes. This chart, published by the Washington Post in January, tells a pretty remarkable story, showing job growth by decade. (You can click on the chart to see it larger.) Notice that red line down towards the bottom? That shows the anemic job creation over the first decade of the 21st century.

Indeed, it went largely ignored at the time, but the Republican Bush/Cheney ticket sought a second term in 2004 despite the fact that it was the first administration in the modern era to go four years with a net job growth of zero. The campaign was largely about national security, so voters overlooked this painful detail.

And so it creates the dynamic that Brownstein describes. If job growth holds steady the rest of this year -- by no means a certainty, of course -- the U.S. economy will create a net gain of about 1.7 million jobs. From start to finish, the net gain under Bush was about 1 million.

The Obama presidency, of course, will have a long way to go before it can start talking about a net gain. It inherited an economy in freefall, and over 4 million jobs were lost in 2009 alone. Making up that kind of lost ground will take quite a long time, though the stimulus has obviously helped get us back on track.

But in some ways, that only helps make the Bush comparison worse -- he inherited an economy with a 4% unemployment rate, a huge surplus, and sunny skies ahead. Worse, Bush/Cheney and congressional Republicans got exactly what they wanted in terms of huge tax cuts, but the economic benefits they promised never materialized.

Oddly enough, these same Republicans think the economy will soar if we just return to Bush-era policies and repeat the same mistakes they already made. Why anyone who hasn't suffered trauma would find this credible remains a mystery.

As of about a decade ago, there was an assumption among much of the public that the government was pretty good at disaster response. By 2000, the Clinton administration's FEMA was considered a model government agency, able to act quickly and effectively to almost any scenario.

A decade later, the public's confidence has been badly rattled, and for good reason -- among its many problems, the Bush administration's mismanagement on this front became a national embarrassment. It wasn't long before it became a template for those hoping to discredit the efficacy of government itself -- if the government can't even respond ably to a hurricane in New Orleans, how can we expect it to [fill in the blank]?

With that in mind, Marc Ambinder raised an important yesterday that often goes overlooked: the government's disaster response efforts have already vastly improved over the last 16 months.

An eternal fact of Washington is that government gets much more attention when it performs badly than when it performs well. As an illustration of the former, recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To illustrate the latter, consider how the media is covering government right now. By my count at least three major natural disasters have occurred in recent weeks: the Nashville flooding, the deadly Oklahoma tornadoes, and the BP oil spill (admittedly not "natural" but threatening to be a major environmental disaster). Let's throw in an attempted terrorist attack in Times Square, too. On every front, government has performed ably -- and often better than ably. And yet it's understating things considerably to say this success has not been widely recognized.

It should be recognized, though, because when it comes to government disaster response, the Bush years marked a low point and right now we're experiencing a high point.

That may seem like cold comfort to those along the Gulf Coast -- there's only so much the government can do about the BP oil spill disaster, and at this point, the crisis is getting considerably worse -- but Ambinder's observation is nevertheless an accurate one. Obama was intent on quickly improving the federal government's ability to respond to these kinds of disasters, and those efforts have been successful.

Ambinder noted several recent examples from the last month, but let's not overlook at the administration won (and deserved) plaudits for his handling of the H1N1 epidemic, and the administration's response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti has not only been exemplary, but it's even exceeded expectations.

Paul Waldman noted recently, "[I]t seems that the better job the Obama administration does with this [BP oil spill] and future disasters, the less it will matter in the public's perception of what government is capable of."

I hope that's right, because the debate in recent years has gone in a ridiculous direction. At issue has never been whether the government can effectively respond to disasters, but rather, the difference between an administration that guts response agencies and promotes incompetent lackeys, and one that takes these issues seriously.

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