GOP Myths Claim Bush, Not Obama, Inherited a Recession
Two days after Americans learned that U.S. household wealth plummeted by a staggering $11 trillion (an 18% drop) in 2008, the Washington Post featured a critique of President Obama's rhetoric attributing the recession to George W. Bush. But while Obama's statement that "by any measure, my administration has inherited a fiscal disaster" is inescapably true, his Republican opponents continue to stand truth on its head. It was George W. Bush and not Barack Obama, they falsely maintain, who inherited a recession.
For its part, the Washington Post doesn't question Obama's veracity regarding the Bush recession but instead suggests he has violated his inaugural pledge to "end to the petty grievances and false promises" of partisan politics. To illustrate that argument, the article turned to none other than Ari Fleischer, the former Bush press secretary:
"His response to that trend [in Obama's approval numbers] is to turn up the blame on George Bush and everything that came before him. And he was the one who talked about getting past partisanship."
That would be the same Ari Fleischer who just two days earlier defended his boss to MSNBC's Chris Matthews, describing "the recession of 2001, which we inherited."
Myth #1: George W. Bush Inherited a Recession
Sadly for Fleischer and the other mythmakers of the Republican amen corner, President Bush did not inherit a recession from Bill Clinton. (He did, however, inherit a 4.2% unemployment rate and a federal budget surplus.) As I noted in January, the same National Bureau of Economic Research (NEBR) which officially declared the current recession began in December 2007 also concluded the previous downturn commenced during Bush's watch in March 2001. By the more traditional definition - two straight quarters of GDP decline - at no point was the economy in recession during the last year of the Clinton presidency.
Undeterred, the Republican Party and its echo chamber have for years continued to perpetuate the myth that President Bush "inherited a recession" from Bill Clinton. As Media Matters detailed, the sound bite was introduced before George W, Bush even took the oath of office. On December 3, 2000, Dick Cheney told Tim Russert "I think so" when asked if "we're on the front edge of a recession." Within days, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ("the Bush-Cheney administration should be planning on having inherited a recession as the farewell gift from Clinton") and House Majority Leader Dick Armey ("this new president may inherit a recession") followed suit. By August 2002, Mitch Daniels, Bush's head of the Office of Management and Budget, announced on Fox News:
"He [Bush] inherited that recession from the previous administration. Case is closed."
Predictably, the drumbeat from the Bush team was reproduced with zero distortion from the always reliable media. While Fox News' Sean Hannity made the argument during the November 2002 mid-term election "this president -- you know and I know and everybody knows -- inherited a recession," CNN made the case for him two months earlier. On September 18th, 2002, CNN's John King announced, "That's why the president, in almost every speech, tries to remind voters he inherited a recession." Five days later, his colleague Suzanne Malveaux regurgitated the same line, reporting, "[Bush] took up that very issue earlier today, saying -- reminding voters that the administration inherited the recession."
To be sure, the Republican propaganda effort worked its magic. In 2004, pollster Geoff Garin showed that 62% of Americans believed the demonstrably false claim that an "economic recession actually began during Bill Clinton's administration, before George W. Bush took office."
As we fast forward to 2009, George W. Bush and his echo chamber continue to perpetuate the same myth. During his final press conference, President Bush sidestepped the fact he had presided over the worst eight-year economic performance in modern presidential history, insisting, "In terms of the economy, look, I inherited a recession, I am ending on a recession. In the meantime there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth." And on Thursday, his faithful flack Ari Fleischer regurgitated the same talking point:
"We've never in this country had 55 straight months of job creation. We had that under President Bush before the bank failures of September...You know, I think he came in with a recession, he left with a recession."
Myth #2: The Obama Recession
While Bush and Fleischer at least displayed a sliver of honesty in acknowledging they had bequeathed a recession to Barack Obama, many of their conservative allies could not bring themselves to make even that minimal admission.
As the Washington Post highlighted today, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) insisted that after 53 days in the White House, Barack Obama is responsible for the Bush recession:
"It is the Obama economy and the Obama stock market. This is about today, and he's assumed his post."
Of course, Republican leaders and pundits alike were blaming Obama for the downturn and the implosion of Wall Street long before his election, let alone before talking office.
In August, former Reagan adviser turned CNBC host Larry Kudlow attributed a one-day slide of the Dow to the Democratic Convention then meeting in Denver. Arguing that "Obama and Biden gave us plenty of class warfare in their Springfield, Ill., get together on Saturday," Kudlow as usual held the Republican president and Republican policies innocent:
"Are the Denver Dems downing the stock market today? The Dow is off 230 points, starting right from the get-go. So-called market analysts are blaming financials and the credit crunch as they always do...With the Denver Dems strutting their stuff, this could be a bumpy week for stocks. Did anyone say free-market capitalism is the best path to prosperity?"
Within hours of his victory in November, the conservative commentariat laid the blame for the Bush recession at the feet of President-Elect Barack Obama. Echoing CNBC's Kudlow, Dick Morris claimed the markets will "continue to tank...not just because he's a radical, not just because he's a Democrat, but because he's going to raise the capital gains tax. While Fox News' Gretchen Carlson announced, "there's a lot of feeling in the market not reacting very well to the election of Barack Obama," Fred Barnes proclaimed, "There is great uncertainty out there about [Obama's] policies." And on Thursday, the always execrable Rush Limbaugh said it's all Obama's fault:
"The Obama recession is in full swing, ladies and gentlemen. Stocks are dying, which is a precursor of things to come. This is an Obama recession. Might turn into a depression. He hasn't done anything yet but his ideas are killing the economy. His ideas are killing Wall Street...
...The market's down today because of the jobless numbers. That's how the Drive-Bys see it. Uhhhhh, we have the largest market plunge after an election in history. Thank you, man-child Barack Obama."
So it came as no surprise that seemingly within minutes of his inauguration, Barack Obama in conservative eyes assumed retroactive responsibility for the calamity George W. Bush had engineered. By early March, the "Obama bear market" meme was in full swing. On March 8, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked John McCain, "Can this now fairly be called 'the Obama bear market'?" (To his credit, McCain at least suggested he would "like to leave that up to the experts.)" Two days earlier, Wallace colleague Sean Hannity introduced his show:
"And our headline this Friday night: Welcome to Day Number 46 of 'Obama's Bear Market.'"
And so it goes. Desperate to change their miserable present, Republicans are traveling back in time to rewrite the past. Despite the easily debunked claim, Republican leaders still insist FDR made the Great Depression worse. Similarly, in Republican lore, George W. Bush inherited a recession. And Barack Obama didn't.