Five years after Wall Street nearly wrecked the planet, President Obama has a few legitimate things to brag about, as he did in a speech Monday delivered from the White House. Bailouts begun by President George W. Bush in 2008 after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and continued by Obama, helped stabilize a financial sector that was imploding. A big stimulus program, while unpopular, further limited the depth of the recession. Jobs are now returning, the housing market is recovering and some Americans are back to business as usual.
The economy Obama presides over, however, is still undergoing wrenching change, while the bar for prosperity gets higher and higher. With one eye (if not two) on his legacy, Obama can’t quite come out and say that tough times are still ahead for millions of Americans. Yet his entire presidency could turn on whether solutions emerge to these 5 big remaining problems:
The American underclass is swelling. The U.S. population has grown by about 12.6 million people since 2008, yet there are roughly the same number of people working now as there were five years ago. The labor force is barely growing and the percentage of adult Americans who are dropping out of the workforce is rising. Put it all together and we’ve got an economy with a growing percentage of economic dropouts and a shrinking percentage of people producing income to spend. That will drag down living standards for many — even those with jobs — until it’s reversed.
Main Street has been left out of the recovery. Big companies and wealthy people are doing great, as the stock market soars, top earners get even richer and corporations sit on something like $2 billion in cash. But that wealth hasn’t trickled down to middle- and low-income earners. Optimism at small businesses, which account for an outsized proportion of new jobs, seems to be settling at permanently depressed levels. The rate at which entrepreneurs start new businesses has been falling, too. If Main Street businesses stagnate, that’s bad news for millions of workers and their families in towns across the country.
The national debt remains a big problem. In his Monday speech, Obama argued that Washington’s annual deficits have been falling at a record rate. But that’s only because they rose to record highs in the first place. Obama highlights falling deficits as part of his pitch for increased federal spending on pet priorities such as schools and infrastructure. Yet the national debt has now eclipsed $17 trillion, making it larger than the nation's total economic output. It will get much bigger as baby boomers retire and begin to tap Medicare in unprecedented numbers. Obama has done very little to press for budget reforms — and soon, it may be too late to accomplish anything on his watch.
Obamacare won’t fix one huge problem with healthcare. With Obama’s sweeping health care reforms set to go into effect on October 1, affordable coverage options will soon be expanded to people who can’t get insurance through an employer. But Obamacare doesn’t really address the other big healthcare problem: Skyrocketing costs. Employers are experimenting with new ways to cut the cost of health care, but that could mean fewer benefits, and higher out-of-pocket costs, for workers. If something doesn’t happen to arrest rising costs, the only outcome will be for Americans to spend more of their disposable income on health care, which most families have already been doing for more than a decade.
There’s not much Obama can do about any of this. Obama’s ability to enact new economic policies is obviously limited by the never-ending spitball battles between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. But policy changes wouldn’t necessarily fix these problems, even if the politicians cooperated. To some extent, the economy is in the midst of long-term changes as digital technology, globalization and other factors revamp the rules about what it takes to get ahead. If there’s any good news, it’s that many other countries face similar challenges, and are even less prepared for them than Obama’s America.
You won’t hear Obama say it, but things really are tough all over.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.