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Democrats’ “New” Strategy: Blame Bush

Taegan Goddard passes along a Paul Bedard report that,

The White House and congressional Democrats are looking at an unorthodox model to fashion their strategies for the upcoming midterm elections and President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Remember when Ronald Reagan, up for re-election in 1984, repeated his winning 1980 campaign question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” while warning that Democrats would return the nation to Jimmy Carter’s disastrous economic days? Well, get ready for top Democrats and the president to pick up that theme as they fight to keep the Republicans at the door.

“In 1984, Reagan was still blaming Jimmy Carter and it worked,” says a Democratic leadership aide. “We’ll not just blame [Bush] but point out that the best indication of what they’ll do is what they’ve done.”

[…]

Democratic researchers have been studying Reagan’s 1984 speeches and say his convention address offers the best to crib from. For example, when Obama told Reid supporters that “what the other party is counting on is that all of you don’t have very good memories,” it was a version of this Reagan line: “Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, let’s take them on a little stroll down memory lane.”

This is both predictable and reasonable.  There’s no doubt that Bush, like Carter, was horribly unpopular at the end and that he left some sizable messes to clean up.  Pointing to these things is both prudent and fair.

But Reagan had one wee advantage in 1984 that Obama won’t have in 2010:   Things had actually gotten markedly better under his watch!

Reagan popularized the “Misery Index,” which was obtained by adding the unemployment rate and the inflation rate.  Well, take a look at how it progressed:

I include Gerald Ford because, in fairness, things weren’t all that great when Carter took over.  But they got markedly worse, especially on the inflation side.   Unemployment actually went up during Reagan’s early days but the combination of policy decisions to control inflation, stimulative spending, and the good old business cycle cut the Misery Index by almost half by the time of the 1984 elections from where it had been when Reagan was elected.

Sadly, the site hasn’t been updated in a while, so I don’t have the equivalent chart for the GWB/Obama comparison.

But the unemployment rate was 7.7 in January 2009, the last month Bush was in office, and inflation was at o.03.  That’s a Misery Index of 7.703.  For June 2010, the last month for which data are available, unemployment is at 9.5 and inflation is at 1.05, for a Misery Index of 10.55.  I don’t have annualized data, but they’d come out with a similar gap, since I’m using Bush’s unemployment high point and Obama’s recent low point.

Further, Republicans will be happy to point out that unemployment is even higher than the dire predictions Obama gave for what would happen if we didn’t pass his stimulus.

As an aside, the fact that inflation has been essentially a non-factor for the last quarter century may make the Misery Index obsolete.   I’d argue that the economy is in much worse shape now than during Carter’s nadir even though the index is half what it was then.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Andre Kenji says:

    Well, today, contrary to the 1980´s, inflation is *still* not a problem. And regardless of who succeed Bush unemployment would explode.

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  2. john personna says:

    “Further, Republicans will be happy to point out that unemployment is even higher than the dire predictions Obama gave for what would happen if we didn’t pass his stimulus.”


    Of course, they rely on their listeners not connecting the dots one step further … to why unemployment would have been lower under the Republican non-stimulus, non-plan.

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  3. sam says:

    I thought the plan was to say, “Don’t vote for those guys–they got us into this mess. (And besides, you like them even less than you like us.)

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  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Real hard to compare what someone says “would have been” to what is.  We don’t know what would have happened if the Democrats had not spent wildly.  We really do not know what would have happened had GM and Chrysler had not gotten government take over.  I would like to think the cost of cars in America would have gone down as the Unions would have had to take a large reduction ($72.00 per hour is rediculous) in pay.  We know small business and big business alike would have probably started hiring by now but the uncertainty of what the Dems have in store for them or the effects of Obamas policies will have on the future of the market place.  I think it would be hard to do more to ruin the economy if they were trying to ruin it.  Question is, are they?

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  5. Dantheman says:

    Z.Rag,

    “Real hard to compare what someone says “would have been” to what is.  We don’t know what would have happened if the Democrats had not spent wildly.”

    I’m inclined to take the <a href=”http://www.economy.com/mark-zandi/documents/End-of-Great-Recession.pdf”>considered opinion</a> of two experts in the field, one of whom was a campaign adviser to McCain, and the other was a former Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

    As they put it, “We find that its effects on real GDP, jobs, and inflation are huge, and probably averted what could have been called Great Depression 2.0. For example, we estimate that, without the government’s response, GDP in 2010 would be about 11.5% lower, payroll employment would be less by some 8½ million jobs, and the nation would now be experiencing deflation.”

    But who are they to pit their beliefs against yours?

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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    The Blinder/Zandi study that you cite is not without controversy.  It’s been severely criticized on methodological grounds by other “experts in the field.”  Suffice it to say that the study is not dispositive.

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  7. Steve Plunk says:

    It’s not just the current condition of the economy that is likely to doom Democrats.  The unpopular health care bill that wasn’t properly reviewed before passage, the lack of action during the gulf spill despite the rhetoric, plans for cap and trade that will hurt business and cost consumers, and most of all the increasing sense of entitlement exhibited by elected officials and government employees.  Add those things to a crappy economy and exploding debt.

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  8. anjin-san says:

    Well, the GOP strategy is to blame Obama for the problems that Bush left on his desk when he took office, so there is something of a balance to this.

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  9. JKB says:

    See the problem isn’t what Bush left, it is that few are upbeat on Obama and the Dems’ ability to make things better.  Few have hope that they’ve even laid the ground work for future prosperity.  Maybe they’ve sowed some magic beans?
     
    Back in 1984, things had been rough but people were hopeful for the future.  So much so that within 2 years we had to wear shades.

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  10. Drew says:

    Heh.  Dave beat me to it, and of course puts it more formally and gracefully.  But – that Zandi study has had alot of crap hurled at it, and by very serious people.  In fact, its practically been debunked.  Sorry, DMan

    anjin-san –  My business is to buy businesses.  Sometimes we bring in new CEO’s to address issues.  After a year and a half we generally aren’t very receptive to “its the old guys fault,” especially when key metrics are substandard.  There are always apologists for the new guy……….but the Board huddles and asks “did we hire the wrong guy?”       

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  11. grampagravy says:

    Drew, does “did we hire the wrong guy” ever lead to “let’s get the clowns back who made this mess?”

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  12. Dantheman says:

    Drew,

    “But – that Zandi study has had alot of crap hurled at it, and by very serious people.  In fact, its practically been debunked.”

    There’s a large difference between having a lot of crap hurled at it and being debunked.  In fact, typically if a lot of crap is hurled at something, rather than an actual good argument, it hasn’t been debunked.

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  13. anjin-san says:

    did we hire the wrong guy?
    Do you seriously think we would be better off with McCain at the helm?  Perhaps if the GOP had made even a tiny effort to work with Obama in a time of national crisis we would be further down the road. The GOP agenda from the day of the election has been to destroy Obama by any means.
    Back in 1984, things had been rough but people were hopeful for the future
    Reagan had a genius for that sort of thing. Its something Obama lacks. Not arguing that. But the mess Reagan inherited, though bad, was not nearly of the magnitude of the Bush train wreck.

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  14. Juneau says:

    Remember when Ronald Reagan, up for re-election in 1984, repeated his winning 1980 campaign question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

    Yeah, only the key here to Reagan using the same campaign “slogan” is that after four years under his administration people were better off.  So he could use it effectively.  Blaming Bush is just another way of saying ” We’re not grown up enough to do anything that works, so just look at the mess our big brother left us!” 

    This is called whining.  It’s unsightly and a sign of immaturity.  I think its time that the voters spanked Obama and taught him that when you screw up, blaming someone else isn’t an admirable character trait.

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  15. Juneau says:

    Perhaps if the GOP had made even a tiny effort to work with Obama in a time of national crisis we would be further down the road.

    Oh, yeah, we would be further down the road alright.  Down the rainbow road to the land of cherry trees and honeysuckle promises.  If you had your wish, there would be more debt (which experts agree is already at “unsustainable” levels), more centralized governental control of the free markets (businesses are frozen with indecision about investing capital because they don’t know what “hope and change” is going to be instituted next), and more taxes during what Obama has called the “Great Recession.”

    Thank God that Republicans found at least some sort of spine to say “No”, because they are much more in step with the majority of Americans than Obama’s policies are.

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  16. Juneau says:

    Drew, does “did we hire the wrong guy” ever lead to “let’s get the clowns back who made this mess?”

    You cannot point to a single policy, or policy trends, put forth by the Republicans that have led to “this mess.”  All you can do is make unsubstantiated claims that “tax cuts” led to our situation.  In fact, not only are they unsubstantiated, they are contrary to the historical facts.  Please cite sources that you rely on to point to Republican policies  which created the housing crash, unemployment of 9.4% , and the unsustainable obligations to social services programs and public penshions which are threatening to bankrupt states.

    I’m very anxious to see what you have to offer.

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  17. Juneau says:

    But the mess Reagan inherited, though bad, was not nearly of the magnitude of the Bush train wreck.

    This is historical revisionism and false.  It is based purely on maintaining the meme that Obama has done nothing to worsen the situation and that it was all inevitable no matter what was done by the current administration.  In other words, the only way you can even come close is by taking today’s numbers and circumstances, retroactively blaming them on Bush, and comparing that to what Reagan inherited from Carter.  That’s not a comparison, it’s a parlor trick.

    Please cite the numbers and statistics you are using for comparison.

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  18. anjin-san says:

    This is historical revisionism and false.
    Tell ya what skippy, why don’t you disprove my premise? You say it’s false, back it up. If you want to call for statistics and citations, you had better have some on hand yourself.

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  19. Juneau says:

    Cheap, evasive, and unfortunately typical.  Nonetheless I’ll accomodate you shortly.

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  20. Juneau says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/06/business/economy/06econ.html

    Bush -end 6 – 6.1%

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8gE1AAAAIBAJ&sjid=RE8KAAAAIBAJ&pg=2389,1174099&dq=unemployment+during+carter+administration&hl=en

    Carter end 6.2%

    On other aspects of Carter’s administration

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Carter

    Under Jimmy Carter Interest rates topped out at 21.5% in Decemeber 1980, 5 times higher than today.

    Under Jimmy Carter unemployment topped out at a whopping, double digit  – 11.3% – in some states.

    Under Jimmy Carter – 14% inflation.

    Enough for you?

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  21. Maxwell James says:

    Juneau,
     
    Not having a particularly high opinion of Reagan nor Obama, let alone their  predecessors, I don’t have much of a dog in this fight. But I do dislike it when people make poor statistical arguments. The unemployment statistics you cite for Carter and Bush are not directly comparable – one comes from four months before the end of an administration, the other 24 months beforehand (and is a projection to boot). So let’s rewind the videotape:
     
    US unemployment was <a href=”http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=us+unemployment+december+1980″>7.2% in December 1980</a>. This represented a <a href=”http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=us+unemployment+january+1976″>.7 percent decrease</a> from the beginning of Carter’s term.
     
    US unemployment was <a href=”http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=us+unemployment+december+2008″>7.4% in December 2008</a>. This represented a <a href=”http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=us+unemployment+january+2005″>2.1 percent increase</a> from the beginning of Bush’s second term. Since Bush had the misfortune to be a two-term president, it also represented a <a href=”http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=us+unemployment+january+2001″>3.2 percent increase</a> from the beginning of Bush’s first term.
     
    In any case, presidents have little control over the economy, as has been demonstrated time and again. But whereas Carter inherited high inflation and high unemployment and presided over a period of no improvement, Bush inherited low inflation and low unemployment and presided over a period of significant decline. If Carter was incompetent, it’s very hard to claim that Bush was not even more so.

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  22. grampagravy says:

    “I’m very anxious to see what you have to offer.”

    How about Bush gets (more or less) elected. Eight years later things are in the toilet.
    Don’t need citations for that. Don’t need to be an economic or political guru to see that one.

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  23. Maxwell James says:
  24. Pete says:

    http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/08/paul_krugman_gives_up_1.html
    For all you Keynesian devotees and deluded govt. lovers.

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  25. john personna says:

    Juneau, I’ll take a shot at explaining this crisis, and both the Bush and Obama roles in it.

    The first thing to remember is that we have had a global series of bubbles and pops.  A lot of people will try to focus in on causes within their own nation, but an explanation that doesn’t work at the same time in all affected countries will of course be incomplete.  When we look at why our stock market popped, we should look at why Japanese markets popped.  Our houses bubbled and popped but so did houses in Spain.  Our banks failed, but so did banks in Iceland.  Our budget is out of balance, but so is the budget in Greece.

    What happened?  I agree with the “giant pool of money” theory, that rising Asian economies enjoyed export booms and high savings rates at the same time.  That gave them money to invest in developed countries.  Too much money available meant that those developed countries could borrow cheaply, and ultimately borrow too much.  We western countries all borrowed too much as individuals, in business (things like leveraged buyouts), and with our governments.  Easy money meant bubble in stocks, housing, commodities, and maybe now gold.

    Bush didn’t make that happen, but I think he doubled-down on all the wrong things.  He supported Greenspan’s low interest rate policy, which tried to keep the game going with more debt.  He set Chris Cox to do nothing at the SEC as peak bubble desperation hit the markets.  He cut taxes and increased deficits even as we where heading into the reckoning.

    And the BOOM.  It was a global explosion in markets, but we suffered like the other risk-takers.  We didn’t have a softer time like the more prudent Canadians (with their safer financial regulations).

    In the aftermath of the US economic explosion we did what we always do, we elected a Democrat.  Americans are nothing if not wishy-washy.  Give them a growth economy and they’ll believe it can never stop, and they’ll elect Republicans to tell them that.  Give them an economic mess to clean up and they’ll elect a Democrat.

    That’s what Obama is trying, with his tools and his beliefs.  Maybe he’ll stay around, because the Republican story of markets that only go up isn’t quite believable yet.  History is a little too fresh in voter’s minds.

    (Too band Canadian prudence is off our radar.)

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  26. Gerry W. says:

    Simply put, Bush relied on his trickle down and ignored so many problems. But this is the character of the republican party-give tax cuts and it is laissez-faire thereafter. During his term, we saw our jobs leave the country, our money go to Iraq, deficits and debt, and the neglect of our country and infrastructure. Other problems may or may not been caused by republicans, but the problems piled up while ignoring future consequences by doing nothing. And you cannot run a country like that.
    The “Carter” problem was the same problem that Nixon-wage and price controls, Ford-WIN buttons, and Reagan had to deal with. All that inflation was caused by the “guns and butter” economics of LBJ. Bush has done the same “guns and butter” economics by using deficits and debt and we will suffer many years for that. We had a 25 year run of lower inflation, lower interest rates, and lower unemployment. Bush has totally reversed that.
    But the most damage is the embracing of globalization and losing our jobs. While globalization should be a winner for all of us, the low wages is undercutting our middle class and taking away our jobs. And we have done little to replace those jobs. And republicans offer nothing in new policy to create jobs. While I would prefer someone different than Obama, republicans policy is to do nothing. Just tax cuts and laissez-faire and that is not good enough.

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  27. Drew says:

    D-Man  Anjin  and Grandpa dopey

    Collectively:  that was pathetic.  Get back to me when you have anything substantial to say.  

    Carry on.   

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  28. Juneau says:

    We had a 25 year run of lower inflation, lower interest rates, and lower unemployment. Bush has totally reversed that.

    No, he did not.  We still do not have substantially higher inflation (even though some economists state this is a danger – and some say deflation is a danger; go figure), we do not currently have higher interest rates, and the unemployment could be significantly mitigated right now if businesses trusted Obama more.

    You folks seem to all be just spouting platitudes and faux economics in your replies. And the primary point is that you can’t even seem to see the inconsistency in your analysis.  If what Reagan did was simply a bandaid or a forward pass of the problem to a future administration, then your stating that any debt is poison to the economy.  Period.  Then why, oh why, is Obama compounding the issue by doubling down on “unsustainable” debt?

    You can’t have it both ways – either Reagan and Bush stimulated their present economies and killed the future economy by the debt they incurred through tax cuts – and therefore Obama’s policies of massive debt are suicide – or tax cuts worked and the economy rebounded accordingly, making the debt manageable.  In which case why isn’t Obama using tax cuts?

    You are arguing both sides of the issue and your approach makes no sense.

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  29. john personna says:

    Then why, oh why, is Obama compounding the issue by doubling down on “unsustainable” debt?


    For the same reason GWB did the first stimulus attempts.  Not as an attempt at a sustainable debt, but as a Hail Mary attempt to prime the pump and kick-start the economy.

    For the same reason that Geitner pitched stimulus to European central bankers.  They publicly rejected that (there is some reason to suspect ‘quiet stimulus’), in favor of austerity.  Now there is a word, austerity.  Another theme echoing around the western economies.

    The alternative to stimulus spending is austerity, and I’d guess you wouldn’t really like it.  Some here might be ready for old-old conservative remedies, purging the system, suffering before renewed growth … but speaking of ‘publicly’ … publicly embracing business failure and unemployment as a path to renewed vigor probably isn’t a vote-getter right now.

    Didn’t a poll say most Americans put ‘job creation’ before ‘deficit reduction’ right now?  If so, they are on board for the Democrats’ plan.

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  30. Juneau says:

    @john personna

    Give them a growth economy and they’ll believe it can never stop, and they’ll elect Republicans to tell them that. Give them an economic mess to clean up and they’ll elect a Democrat.

    You’ve got to joking, right?  In what alternate universe do you live in, where Carter was a champion of prosperity?  Seriously, how do you forget that Reagan was elected in the face of a horrible economy to fix Carter’s mess, which he did

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  31. Juneau says:

    For the same reason GWB did the first stimulus attempts.  Not as an attempt at a sustainable debt, but as a Hail Mary attempt to prime the pump and kick-start the economy.

    Baloney.  Bush signing off on the first stimulus was a stop-gap based on pressure of the moment.  Obama has made debt the center piece of his economic policy – or does the term “Keynesian Economics” not ring a bell? 

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  32. anjin-san says:

    As Maxwell points out, Carter inherited an economy that was in pretty bad shape. Anyone remember Nixon’s wage & price freeze? Ford’s WIN buttons? Referring to the 70’s economy as “Carter’s mess” is simply a statement of ignorance. Reagan did do quality work turning the economy around, but he also put us on the road that led us to our current deficit debacle. The Reagan era was also the start of the erosion of the middle class in this country.
    Bush inherited a pretty strong hand from Clinton. We had a SURPLUS for God’s sake.
     
    Drew,
    Is calling people “pathetic” all you have? Its kinda… pathetic. You ducked the question. Do you seriously think we would be better off with McCain in the White House?
     
     

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  33. john personna says:

    You’ve kind of lost me there Juneau.  GWB is excused his Keynesian stimulus because … why?  Because he’s “not a real Republican” now?  Because we are back to pretending that future Republicans will be different?  Until they do expand the deficit again, at which point we again move to future Republicans?  Rinse, Wash, Repeat?
     
     

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  34. Dantheman says:

    Drew,

    Let me get this straight.  Rags pulls paranoid fantasies with no support for them whatsoever out of his tuchas.  I refute them by pointing to a study by 2 well respected people, one on each side of the aisle, whose actual job is to predict the future of the economy.  And your response is to call the smelly brown stuff you posted substantive and the well-sourced econometric study I cited pathetic.
    Come back when you actually get out of grade school.

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  35. Steve851 says:

    The main problem about the blame Bush strategy is that it is also an indictment of Obama.  The two presidents are hard to distinguish from an independent point of view.  Both pandered to narrow tribal interests and gave the majority the finger.  Both seem determined to bankrupt the country and drive it into the ground.  Very hard to tell the difference if you’re concerned about the future

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  36. EJ says:

    dan,

    the problem with the zandi study or any other one similar to it is that they dont actually meassure what went on – because we cant. We dont know what would have happened in absence of policy.

    So all that paper does is take their macro model derived prior to the recession and reimput the current variables to guess what would have have happend in the policy absence. But its just a simulation which is predicated on your premices all being correct. 

    What complicates things even further is the historicall uniqueness of events over the past few years. Even in that paper they discussed how they had to “innovate” their meathods because these circumstances have never happened before. 

    So did all this policy repsonse work on net? Maybe. But there is no way to emperically know.

    And even by this paper, almost 3/4 of the net benifit was determined to have been done by the fed and other monetary policy and actions that occured prior to Obama even being in office.  His policy was a smaller factor.  

    And lastly this doesn even attempt to make an estimate of the long term costs of the debt accumulated. 

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  37. EJ says:

    business cycle theory is the area of eocnomics which is least understood and hence why there is so much debate amongst even economists on the topic. That zandi paper has caused a major back and forth between many prominent economists the past week or so.

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  38. Dantheman says:

    EJ,

    “So all that paper does is take their macro model derived prior to the recession and reimput the current variables to guess what would have have happend in the policy absence. But its just a simulation which is predicated on your premices all being correct.”

    Agreed.  On the other hand, Zandi makes his living by developing these models and has a very good track record (and is not likely to be carrying water for the Obama Administration, since he’s not a Democrat and advised McCain).  As a result, in the absence of a better model, this study is a reasonable guess at what would have happened.   A guess which is a lot better than Rags’ comment “We know small business and big business alike would have probably started hiring by now but the uncertainty of what the Dems have in store for them or the effects of Obamas policies will have on the future of the market place.  I think it would be hard to do more to ruin the economy if they were trying to ruin it.”

    “And even by this paper, almost 3/4 of the net benifit was determined to have been done by the fed and other monetary policy and actions that occured prior to Obama even being in office.  His policy was a smaller factor.  
    And lastly this doesn even attempt to make an estimate of the long term costs of the debt accumulated.”

    Of course, that works both ways — the long term accumulated debt is largely the result of policies put in place before Obama.

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  39. grampagravy says:

    @Drew,
    You can call me all the names you want if you think that somehow supports your position, but leave my brother grandpa-dopey out of this!

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