Who Gets Credit for the Recovery (When it Happens)?

Seth Masket (link from Andrew Sullivan) writes:

The upcoming presidential election is the most important election in a generation. . . . we are in the middle of (and hopefully on the tail end of) a truly catastrophic recession. The economy will recover, although that may not happen for several years. It seems fair to say that the economy will not be roaring again any time soon, meaning that Obama will at best win by a squeaker. If it dips back into recession, he’s toast. Most likely, it will end up just being a really competitive and interesting race on par with 2004.

The party occupying the White House when the economy does finally start booming will get the credit among the public for saving the country. It doesn’t matter so much who was in power when the recession hit or whose policies helped or hurt the recovery. To a large extent, it’s simply a matter of being in the Oval Office at the right time.

Masket goes on to quote Larry Bartels on the randomness of who happens to be the leader of a country when economic conditions improve.

I’m not saying Masket is wrong, but . . . isn’t this what many Democrats were saying in 2007-2008? The economy was in decline and the Democrats were on their way to unified control of the national government (the House, the Senate, the presidency—-all they were missing was the Supreme Court), so it looked like an automatic win. Whatever Obama and the Democrats did, they’d get credit for the anticipated recovery. Just like Roosevelt in 1936, or Reagan in 1984.

But it didn’t happen this way. It turned out that Obama came to power in the equivalent of 1930, not 1933, and the economy had a long way to go down.

Again, Masket might be right that the economy will bounce back (in some sense) by 2016 or whenever. I just think we have to be careful about assumptions than anyone can just sit back and take the credit for the recovery—-that’s the kind of thinking that (may) have kept us in this mess!

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.