The recession happened.
It would not seem this fact escaped the notice of many Americans, but Mitt Romney’s campaign is built around the assumption that we have forgotten.
A recent manifestation of the effort to erase the recession from our collective memory was the Romney camp’s glee at a “gaffe” by Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden’s comment: “This is deadly earnest. How they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years?”
The Romney campaign was all over it.
“Vice President Biden made a stunning admission today, and we couldn’t agree more: The middle class has been ‘buried’ under the last four years of this president’s policies,” a Romney spokeswoman said. “Under President Obama, the middle class has suffered from crushing unemployment, rising prices and falling incomes.”
In a world that revolves entirely around which political party has the upper hand, the most important thing that happened about four years ago was that a Democrat was elected president. For everyone else, the most significant event was that the economy crashed.
In free fall
Four years ago, the U.S. economy was in free fall. A rapid decrease in home values did not just eliminate the limited wealth of the middle class, it devastated financial institutions. The credit market froze. Banks would not lend to each other. Businesses could not meet payrolls because banks cut off lines of credit. Lehman Brothers collapsed, and even larger financial institutions avoided collapse only with federal assistance.
Bankruptcies and bank failures skyrocketed. More Americans — 2.6 million of them — lost jobs in 2008 than in any year in the previous six decades. The stock market plummeted, taking retirement accounts with it.
A footnote in this devastating financial story is that, in January 2009, Obama took office.
Biden was right: The middle class suffered. A recession that began before Obama took office buried the middle class in unemployment, debt, vanishing savings and anxiety.
People who had a precarious hold on middle-class status lost their grip, falling by the millions into poverty.
Obama had no more to do with the disaster than Romney. Fortunately, former President George W. Bush ignored Romney’s unsolicited advice and took the first steps toward stimulus programs that helped prevent a repeat of the Great Depression.
‘Food stamp president’
In Wednesday’s debate, Romney trumpeted the fact that millions more people had to accept food stamps in the past four years, making Obama the “food stamp president.”
Is Romney so detached from the rest of America that he fails to understand this is an inevitable consequence of massive job loss? Long ago, the nation decided it would rather incur the expense of food assistance than allow people to starve. Obama cannot take credit for minimizing the hunger of the millions who found themselves destitute as a result of the recession, but he certainly deserves no blame.
Romney rallies his troops by decrying an increase in the deficit. That increase might be politically significant had there not been an intervening recession. Deficits, however, always increase in a recession. Tax revenue falls and expenses — both for welfare and stimulus — increase.
The recession that was raging when Obama took office was the worst since the Great Depression, and a contributing cause was reckless profiteering by financial institutions. Did regulations increase under the Obama administration? Of course they did. Deregulation was part of what caused financial tragedy for millions. Only a callous and irresponsible government would have failed to address the problem.
Romney does not explicitly claim that Obama caused the recession, because voters would recognize that makes no sense.
Instead, he blames Obama for each of the inevitable consequences of the recession. That makes no sense, either.