It is easy to forget how different a world we inhabited the last time Barack Obama took the oath of office.
The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent, the same as it is today—but then, it was rising by half a percentage point each month; now it is gradually drifting downward. The U.S. economy contracted at a 5.3 percent rate that quarter. Now it has been growing around two percent for three straight years. The Dow Jones Industrial average was at 7,949. It has risen 5,647 points since then, or 71 percent.
There was a very real chance that the economic collapse would spiral into a global depression; had things gone worse, joblessness could have kissed 25 percent, as it did in the 1930s, not the 10 percent that was the peak in this lesser depression.
The Obama economic agenda was in every way shaped by this reality.
His first weeks in office were dominated by pushing the $800 billion stimulus legislation through Congress. There were elements of the legislation that reflected longstanding Democratic party goals, such as funding clean energy investments (“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” as Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel memorably put it.) But the urgency and scale of stimulus was determined by the depth of the economic contraction that Obama greeted on Day One.
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