Obama on the Economy 5 Years Later: 'We're Not Near Where We Need to Be'

Matt Berman

President Obama launched a defense of the economic progress under his administration Sunday on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, while still acknowledging how much there is left to be done. Obama's interview comes five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers kicked off the financial crisis at the heart of the 2007-09 recession. That recession, Obama said Sunday, was in some ways "worse than what happened in the 1930s."

But, previewing a Monday Rose Garden speech, Obama ran off a string of accomplishments:

We came in, stabilized the situation. We've now had 42 straight months of growth. Seven and a half million new jobs created. Five hundred thousand jobs in manufacturing, 370,000 jobs in an auto industry that had completely collapsed. The banking system works, it is giving loans to companies who can get credit. And so we have seen, I think, undoubtedly progress across the board.

"But what is also true," the president said, "is that we're not near where we need to be." The president pointed to long-term trends in the U.S. economy, where inequality has ballooned since 1979. Saying that he's capable of stoping those trends, Obama called out a portion of Congress "whose policies don't just wanna leave things alone, they actually want to accelerate these trends."

Sunday isn't just the anniversary of Lehman collapsing and the economic turmoil shifting into warp speed. It's also five years to the day after then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain said that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong."

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Candidate Obama, for his part, chided the Bush administration on Sept. 15, 2008, for policies that "shredded consumer protections" and "loosened oversight and regulation and encouraged outsized bonuses to CEOs," setting up what would become his presidential push for financial reform. "The result," he said then, "is the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression."

McCain was obviously wrong about the economy then, and five years later, there's no one who would dare repeat the claim now.

It may be something of a truism, but one of the most incredible things about the 2007-09 recession is just how much of a slough the recovery has been. Take this newly updated chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, comparing the recoveries from the four most recent recessions:


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The unemployment rate in September 2008 was 6.1 percentup from a relatively stable 5 percent that had been the peak unemployment for the 30 months preceding December 2007. The unemployment rate steadily rose throughout 2008 and the beginning of 2009, spiking at 10.2 percent in October 2009.

We still haven't gotten back to the prerecession levels of unemployment. We haven't even gotten back to the mid-recession unemployment of five years ago. The employment picture for this August was particularly bleak, with an Obama-presidency-low unemployment rate of 7.3 percent masking sharp downward revisions to the previous months' jobs gains. At August's rate of job growth, it'd take nearly two years for the economy to get back to 5 percent unemployment.

One of the darkest sides of the recession has been the slow recovery of the long-term unemployedpeople who have been out of work for at least 27 weeks. As the CBPP shows, the rates of long-term-unemployed Americans are still unprecedented:


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Last month, the long-term unemployed accounted for 37.9 percent of the total unemployed, about unchanged from the month before. Over the last year, the number of long-term-unemployed Americans has dropped by 733,000 to 4.3 million people in August.

Obama is obviously right to say the economy today isn't as bad as it was five years ago. Many people have come back from the recession's depths. Even former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld is sort-of back, pushing a chemical-recycling penny stock. But the truth is, five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the recovery from the Great Recession has been anything but equal.