CAMBRIDGE – With November’s election in the United States fast approaching, the Republican candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama claim that his policies have done nothing to support recovery from the recession that he inherited in January 2009. If anything, they claim, his fiscal stimulus, the bank bailouts, and US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s aggressive monetary policy made matters worse.
Obama’s Democratic defenders counter that his policies staved off a second Great Depression, and that the US economy has been steadily working its way out of a deep hole ever since. Middle-ground observers, meanwhile, typically conclude that one cannot settle the debate, because one cannot know what would have happened otherwise.
There is a good case to be made that government policies – while not strong enough to return the economy rapidly to health – did halt an accelerating economic decline. But the middle-ground observers are right that one cannot prove what would have happened otherwise. It is also true that it is rare for a government’s policies to have a major impact on the economy immediately.