Is Obama the next Reagan?

I have a brother who attributes nearly everything good that’s happened in the economy since 1981 to Ronald Reagan. The economic recovery of the ’80s? Obviously Reagan. The economic boom of the ’90s? That was Reagan, too. The downturn we experienced in the 2000s? Well, Reagan died in the 2000s, did he not? The $5 bill I unexpectedly discovered in the front pocket of my freshly laundered dungarees? Could be nothing more nor less than the nearly decade-long economic stewardship of one Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In fact, I believe he’s currently working on a theory involving Lorentzian wormholes, Einstein’s special theory of relativity, and gravitational time dilation in order to prove that Ronald Reagan created the Roaring Twenties boom cycle and that Nancy Pelosi was responsible for the subsequent stock market crash.

Of course, he’s my brother, and so I love him. … I love him as far as I can throw him, actually. (I realize that makes no sense, but then again, neither does he.)

As far as Reagan is concerned, I believe the shrewdest economic move he ever made was getting elected in 1980, when Paul Volcker was already chair of the Federal Reserve. Volcker tamed inflation at the start of the decade, and the recessionary economy that ensued was like Rush Limbaugh’s head after an unhealthy crash diet – it was bound to expand again. (Hey, if you think that’s mean, get a load of this.)

Anyway, I mention all this because we’re starting to see more and more economic good news (for instance, the economy added 290,000 jobs in April, which was more than expected), and just as it’s human nature to assign blame when things go bad, people of every political stripe will be sure to attribute the recovery – if it actually takes root – to their hero or heroes of choice.

As a guy with liberal tendencies, I’ll be tempted to gloat and laugh and tell every Republican I see that Barack Obama saved us from the baleful influence of George W. Bush. But I think that would be a mistake because, deep down, I’ve come to believe that a president’s economic performance – and by extension his reelection prospects – have a great deal to do with blind luck. In fact, I think the best economic strategy a president can pursue is to time his or her first campaign to coincide with a recession that he or she can blame on the other party, wait for the business cycle to do its magic, and then take credit for everything good that happens in everyone’s lives, from the increase in value of their stock portfolios to the sharp decrease in the number of times I spit Bacardi and Jolly Good across the room because Donald Rumsfeld’s face suddenly appears on my television while I’m watching Meet the Press.

Indeed, I tend to believe that if we elected a bonobo who selected his team of economic advisors by flinging poo at the assembled economics faculty of the Ivy League schools, the economy would either improve or fall into a recession, depending on where we were in the business cycle. (Of course, if the bonobo were a Republican, Fox News’ pundits would pen rapturous odes to his deft and dexterous handling of the poo; if a Democrat, it would be the worst poo-flinging in the history of apekind.)

Now, if you’re keeping score – which I am, because I’m a petty, angry little man who likes to watch my relatives squirm – you have to acknowledge that, in recent history anyway, Democratic presidents have been better stewards of the economy than Republican presidents.

Michael Kinsley demonstrated this rather adroitly in a 2008 story for Slate.com. (Obviously, this analysis doesn’t include the horrible economy of the past few years – which I would blame on Bush II if I were inclined to use the same logic as my brother – but I’ll wager the conclusion still holds up, particularly if the rest of the Obama years end up coinciding with another boom cycle.)

Writes Kinsley, “On average, in years when the president is a Democrat, the economy grows faster; inflation is lower; fewer people can’t find a job; the federal government spends a smaller share of GDP, whether or not you include defense spending; and the deficit is lower (or – sweet Clinton-years memory – the surplus is higher). The one category that Republicans win is, unsurprisingly, federal taxes as a share of GDP. But it is no trick to lower taxes if you don’t lower spending.”

Does that mean that Democrats are really better for the economy than Republicans? I’d be more inclined to believe they’re luckier. But what it does pretty convincingly show is that the idea that Republican presidents are always better for the economy is a canard. Compare the Clinton years to the Bush II years, for example. No comparison.

Now, I don’t want to paint this picture in overly broad strokes. Clearly, good public policy is important to our continued prosperity. For instance, I think we should all be alarmed by the unsustainable Keynesian spending spree both parties have indulged in over the last several decades (though why spending billions on finding nonexistent WMDs is patriotic while spending billions on domestic education and infrastructure is socialistic is beyond me). And the huge trade deficits we’ve maintained since – ahem – the Reagan years can hardly go on forever. At some point, we’ll have to come to terms with this.

And, as the past several years have shown, we can’t fall asleep at the regulatory wheel. Nor should we impede growth with too much micromanaging.

But I can’t escape the conclusion that, in general, whether there’s a D or R in front of your name is less important than when you take office. The economy will recover. … And my brother will credit Reagan.

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