When the recession bottomed out

WHEN THE RECESSION BOTTOMED OUT…. With the nation’s jobs picture starting to kinda sorta improve, Jon Chait had an interesting item earlier noting that Republicans will claim at least partial credit if/when unemployment starts falling next year.

That’s a safe assumption. It’s what happened in Bill Clinton’s first term, and it’s a mortal lock that if there’s a genuine recovery going into 2012, the GOP will make the case that they had a hand in producing the result. Jon added:

This won’t matter much for Obama’s reelection, which largely depends on whether the economy does recover. But it does effect the story people tell themselves about what kinds of policies work and which ones don’t. If you imagine that Obama won his election in 2010, at the trough of the recession, and saw unemployment fall during his presidency, and kept control of Congress through two terms, you could see a narrative of Democratic policies causing prosperity breaking through, as it did with Roosevelt. Obama, like Clinton, is unlikely to enjoy such a benefit.

This touches on a point I’ve been kicking around for a while: Obama really got screwed by the timing of the recession.

Kevin Drum had a terrific item on Monday, noting that “liberal progress over the past century has come in a series of very short bursts.” We saw the “Progressive Era,” which was soon ended by Harding and Coolidge. We saw the New Deal, but Republicans took back Congress soon after WWII and Eisenhower stunted additional progress. The Great Society produced its own backlash and gave us Reagan.

The failures of the Bush/Cheney era led to an opportunity for Obama to change the game, but his “era” was cut short after two years. Kevin speculated as to why, noting several credible explanations, including problems with expectations, the burdens of a 24/7 media environment, public disgust with Congress, and the weakness of the economy.

I think that fourth one is the most persuasive — does anyone think Dems would have lost Congress if unemployment was 6%? — but it’s worth fleshing this out.

The “Great Recession” began in 2007, before Obama had even won the Iowa caucuses, but the economy really fell off a cliff in fall 2008. When the president took the oath in 2009, the economy was in freefall, before bottoming out last June.

The recession obviously wasn’t Obama’s fault, but the timing hurts. Whereas the Great Depression had more or less bottomed out before FDR took office, so he could help create (and take credit for) a real recovery, Obama saw the economy crumble, through no fault of his own, a little more after his inauguration. When the president was sworn in, for example, the unemployment rate was 7.7%. Today, it’s 9.6%. Is Obama to blame for that? Not if you’re sane — the clear majority of the job losses happened well before the president’s policies could even try to make things better.

The point, though, is that the timing couldn’t have been worse. When Republican say the unemployment rate is higher now than before the stimulus, for example, it’s idiotic, but it’s also true in a deeply misleading way. The context makes all the difference, but no one seems to have time for evidence or context anymore.

So, to Jon’s point, one can only wonder what conditions would have been like if Obama’s election were this year, instead of ’08 — or if the recession had bottomed out in June ’08, instead of June ’09.