BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Rating Obama’s last State of the Union
AFTER THE TWO KEY BAJANS in the United States (US) had listened to US President Barack Obama’s last State Of The Union address, they offered different assessments of his economic track record.
The two public figures were John Beale, Barbados’ Ambassador in Washington, who was in the Congressional chamber when Obama spoke, and Charlie Skeete, a former Barbados top diplomat to the US, who was at home in a Virginia suburb.
When Obama zeroed in on the economy he cited seven years of continuous growth after the Great Recession which he inherited. He also pointed to the sharp decline in the double digit unemployment rate of 2008; the slashing of the fiscal deficit; the robust revival of the automobile industry from a near death experience to a record year of sales in 2015; and to the creation of nearly 14 million more jobs in seven years.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama told a joint session of the US House of Representatives and the Senate in the presence of the diplomatic corps, justices of the Supreme Court, Cabinet members and other officials.
“I have attended every State Of The Union message delivered by the president since he assumed office and I would say this was perhaps the most eloquent speech,” Beale told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY. “But as I was sitting there and listening to him, the thought that went through my mind was that while there are many, many positive things going on in the US economy, they don’t apply to us in the Caribbean.”
“The US economy has recovered significantly under President Obama. The economy is growing, employment is up and a whole bunch of positive things have happened. On the other hand, we in the Caribbean were tremendously hurt back in 2008 when the whole thing blew up. Between 2008 and 2009 and now there has been growth in the US but that doesn’t apply to us in the Caribbean.”
“What’s happening here hasn’t affected us on the positive side. It affected us negatively. We in Barbados are still not where we were back then.”
True, said the ambassador, the tourists were returning to Barbados. Also true the real estate sector may have rebounded. But the Caribbean island remains far from where it was almost a decade ago.
“I certainly can’t say what has happened in the US has trickled down to the Caribbean,” Beale went on.
“The small islands have a different type of economy than that of the US. I also can’t blame Obama for our problems in the Caribbean. We still have to fight hard. Obama’s responsibility isn’t to improve the economy of Barbados and I am sure he doesn’t want to harm it. His goal is to do whatever he can for the United States. That’s his report card.”
In the years since Obama became the first black president, at least 17 million more Americans have health care insurance coverage; the median household income has reached US$56 746; violent crime has plummeted; gas prices have fallen to less than US$2 per gallon; the poverty rate is almost 15 per cent, and that’s higher than when he took office; and the overall national debt has ballooned to US$18 trillion, up from US$11 trillion when he was elected president.
On balance, though, the country is much better off today than when Obama was elected in 2008.
Skeete, who was Barbados’ Ambassador to the US in the 1980s and later became a senior economic adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank, doesn’t entirely share Beale’s assessment.
“As I listened to the president, I said that he had a good record of performance on the economy and I expected him to say what he actually told the American people,” asserted Skeete, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. “What he said was factual. Unemployment has fallen from ten per cent when he took office to five per cent today. Five per cent unemployment in the US is considered where the country wants to be.
“Obama mentioned some things that are not where they should be and one is the level of wages. Wage growth is not where the administration would like it to be.
“Wage growth has been flat. However, wages aren’t falling. Overall, the US economy hasn’t put in a spectacular performance but compared with the rest of the world and where it was when Obama was elected it is doing quite well.”
Skeete sees Barbados as reaping benefits from what’s happening in the US. For instance, like Beale, he points to the return of American tourists to the country as a decided outgrowth of the improving American economy.
“The recovery of the US economy is a good thing for the global economy,” Skeete insisted. “In that sense, it’s a good thing for Barbados. It’s my understanding that tourist arrivals from the US have been improving and that investments in Barbados real estate are also improving. I don’t have exact figures but if that’s true there is reason for Barbados to be optimistic about the recovery of the US economy.”
Clearly, then, Obama was good for the US, Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean.