If you worked a factory shift in Michigan in January 2009, when Barack Obama assumed the office of the presidency, you were wrestling with two manners of economic crisis. One was the immediate threat to your job. If you lost it, you were in danger of losing your car, and your house too. The other moved slower than the flood of the financial crisis. It was the realization that came into picture over many years —that the economic future you were once promised was drifting away.
That imminent crisis has long since receded. History will record that President Obama and his economic team presided over a historically swift end to a massive recession, along with a better rebound than any other industrialized country enjoyed at the time. Obama bragged on this legacy in his farewell speech on Tuesday evening in Chicago.
“Today,” the outgoing president said, “the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low.”
A few moments later, though, Obama acknowledged that those numbers are more complicated than they appear — that the expansion he oversaw as president left many workers and regions behind, that inequality remains high, and that, above all, his presidency has failed to reassure poor and middle-class Americans that hard work will suffice to get them ahead.
“Too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind,” he said, “the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills, convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”
Those are the words of a president who is about to surrender his legacy to Donald Trump, a populist elected in part because of his appeals to the real and valid sense of economic stagnation that remains in much of America.
They are the words of a president who appears to understand — to have internalized — that he was unable to soothe the longer-running sense of economic crisis in much of working-class America once the recession itself was over.
Yes, income gains for the middle class were finally arriving in the last years of Obama’s presidency. More Americans were working. The tightening labor market was delivering them higher wages for that work. Median incomes were rising faster, after adjusting for inflation, than ever recorded by the Commerce Department.
Yet they were still not nearly enough to bring the American dream comfortably into view for autoworkers in Akron, Ohio, or home health aides in Richmond, Virginia. There are still fewer factory jobs in America today than when Obama took office. Real median income is just getting back to where it was in 2000. Men and women in their prime working years are participating less in the labor force than they did before the recession.
For all of our detailed assessments and long wanderings through the Obama economic record, this remains the simplest snap assessment: He solved one crisis, but not both.
It doesn’t matter that he didn’t create the longer-term crisis, which began for some workers in the 1980s, for others in the 1990s, and for the broad middle class in the early 2000s. It doesn’t matter that his record might look different if a Democrat had won a “third term” of sorts for him in the White House and managed to keep the economy at full employment for four years of late-’90s-style wage growth.
What matters is that Americans had grown accustomed to the economy delivering broad wage gains and strong job growth, in the years after World War II, of the type that lifted up workers across race, gender, and class lines, though certainly not all at the same rate. When it stopped delivering, alarm grew. Obama saw it himself.
Nine years ago, on a freezing day in Springfield, Illinois, before the financial flood upended the economy, Obama announced his presidential candidacy with a promise of shared prosperity. He set a very high bar.
“Let's be the generation that ends poverty in America,” he said. “Every single person willing to work should be able to get job training that leads to a job, and earn a living wage that can pay the bills, and afford child care so their kids have a safe place to go when they work. Let's do this.”
He didn’t do it. What he did, history will record, was critical. But so was what he, and Congress, left undone. The work remains unfinished, and now it is Trump’s to take on.