President Obama didn’t comment on Friday’s report of declining growth in the second quarter, and that’s no surprise. The economic story of his Presidency is by now familiar: a plodding recovery that has taken its third dip in three years and is barely raising incomes for most Americans.
“We’re still in a position where we are pulling ourselves out of the very deep hole caused by the Great Recession, and there is still—of course—a great deal of anxiety in the country about the economy,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. He’s right about the anxiety, but if only we were “pulling ourselves out.”
The reality is that the Great Recession ended three long years ago. In this Less Than Great Recovery, the economy shows promise for one good quarter then slows back down. As the nearby chart shows, this is the third straight year of sputtering recovery. Growth of 4.1% in the fourth quarter declined to 2% in the first and now 1.5% in the second. The stock market rose as investors bet that the lousy growth will inspire more Federal Reserve easing.
The sliver of good news is that private growth, which is what really matters, was up a slightly less anemic 1.8%, and government spending fell by a minus-1.4% from the first quarter. Housing is also now less of a drag on GDP. But this makes the paltry 1.5% growth more disconcerting, because it means that other parts of the economy are growing less rapidly than they ought to be.
Consumption ticked up only 1.5%, for example, down from 2.4% in the first quarter. This may reflect that wages and salaries are barely keeping pace with inflation. Another negative is that business inventories climbed unexpectedly in the second quarter, which often presages a decline in business spending in the next quarter to clear the shelves.
It’s important to understand how unusual this kind of weak recovery is. Deep recessions like the one from December 2007 to June 2009 are typically followed by stronger recoveries, as there is more lost ground to make up.
The most recent comparable recession occurred in 1981-1982. Yet as the nearby chart shows, the Reagan expansion exploded with a 9.3% quarter and kept up a robust pace for years. By the 12th quarter of expansion, growth popped up to 6.4.%. At this stage of the Reagan expansion, overall GDP was 18.5% higher versus 6.7% for the Obama recovery, according to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.
Even comparing this recovery with the average since the end of World War II, the Obama growth rate is well below the norm of 15.2%. The U.S. is running about $1.5 trillion of economic output behind where it should be.
This may sound like an abstraction, but it is the difference between a robust job market and lost opportunity for millions of Americans. It is the difference between a small federal budget deficit and more than $1 trillion for four straight years. It is the difference between a rising or falling poverty rate.