President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday night will be the last time he’ll have the full attention of the nation, and he’s expected to use the broadcast as an opportunity to give himself and his administration a sturdy pat on the back. As his presidential legacy starts to take shape, he’ll try to paint a much prettier picture of the nation than what’s circulating on the presidential campaign trail by chronicling the economic turnaround that occurred under his watch.
Certainly, there are some bright spots worthy of a humblebrag.
No doubt, President Obama will tout how the unemployment rate has declined during the his time in office. It reached a seven-year low of 5% in October 2015 after soaring as high as 10% in October 2009.
And he might touch on the stellar performance of the S&P 500—often considered the most important stock market indicator. Sure, it faltered in the second half of 2015 and got off to a rough start this year, but its 106% rise over the last seven years means Obama can safely say that his administration has been good to the capital markets.
But beyond those top-line figures, there are a few economic measures that aren’t so rosy.
The Obama administration’s economic policies have received criticism for not sparking wage growth. Median hourly pay is up just 7% over the past seven years. On the campaign trail, especially among Republican president hopefuls, candidates have argued that slow wage growth has kept the middle class from achieving a full post-recession recovery.
While wages have stayed relatively flat, Americans’ non-housing debt has increased, mainly because of surging student debt, which surpassed total credit card debt in Obama’s second year in office. The president has introduced several loan repayment policies to make college debt easier to manage, but he hasn’t figured out how to make higher education less expensive.
USA Today once floated a theory that student debt is eating into homeownership. Fortune threw cold water on that rationale in July, but homeownership is on the decline for a whole host of other reasons. One of them is that Americans aren’t earning enough money to afford a home. And the credit market has remained tight. Banks, still recovering from the recession, have been hesitant to lend to anyone but the most qualified mortgage applicants. Homeownership is usually considered a good thing since it fosters wealth creation, but given what happened the last time the housing bubble burst, it’s easy to argue that sinking homeownership isn’t necessarily a negative.
Then there are a few economic statistics that are down-right off-limits for Obama.
While the declining unemployment rate during the Obama presidency tells a positive story about Americans getting back to work, it’s also received a major assist from the large number of Americans who have dropped out of the workforce altogether. The plummeting labor participation rate is attributable—in part—to the retirement of baby boomers and to out-of-work Americans who are discouraged enough to give up the job hunt. This too is a favorite criticism of the Obama administration by 2016 Republican hopefuls. On Sunday, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” that there are “60, 70, 80 million people out there that want to work that aren’t getting jobs,” alluding to Americans who are of working age but aren’t in the labor force.
And despite the populist wave that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008, the president should steer clear of the inequality discussion on Tuesday night, since from 2009 through 2014, the über rich have experienced impressive real income growth, while the bottom 99% has seen almost none.
Charts by Stacy Jones.