So two months before an election, and 19 months after the mother of all spending programs, President Obama said yesterday he’s rolling out one more plan to stimulate the economy. We’ll discuss the details when they’re released, but the effort itself is a tacit admission that his earlier proposals have flopped. As the autumn economic debate gets underway, it’s important to understand how and why we got here.
The recession preceded Mr. Obama’s Inaugural by 13 months, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, and so did the President’s fiscal policy ideas. George W. Bush got there first. In February 2008, he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed on a $168 billion combination of federal spending and temporary tax rebates that were supposed to maintain growth through the housing market decline that election year.
Larry Summers, who would later become Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, made the case for such a stimulus to boost domestic “demand” in late 2007. Any stimulus, he told the Brookings Institution, should be “timely, targeted and temporary.” Peter Orszag, then at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) before joining the Obama White House, made the same case.
The official GDP statistics did show a growth blip in the second quarter of 2008 to 0.6%, but third quarter GDP fell by 4%, and we all know what happened after the financial meltdown. Stimulus I failed.
Enter Stimulus II, the $814 billion plan that was also supposed to make up for lost private demand. It too was a combination of one-time tax rebates and spending, mostly on social programs like Medicaid rather than on “shovel-ready projects.” Mr. Summers promised this would have a 1.5 “multiplier” effect on GDP growth, and White House economists Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein famously predicted the spending would keep the jobless rate below 8%.