Commentary: Creating jobs isn't easy

In his speech at the Republican National Convention in 2000, GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush complained, "For eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity." Bush's remark prefaced a recitation of what he perceived as various shortcomings of President Bill Clinton's tenure.

I must confess to a nostalgic yearning for those days when we had to endure a prolonged period of coasting through prosperity.

It's a stark contrast to the misery America finds itself in as a somewhat humbled President Bush concludes eight deeply disappointing years in the White House. During the national nightmare of 2008, the U.S. suffered a net loss of 2.6 million jobs, the biggest decline since the end of World War II; the worst stock market downturn since 1931; a continuation of the worst housing market collapse since the Great Depression; a financial crisis on Wall Street that saw the demise of longstanding investment firms; record-high gasoline prices; record-high federal budget deficits; and once-mighty U.S. automakers pleading for a multibillion-dollar aid package from Washington to help avoid potential extinction.

As we're realizing, there are few things more important to coasting through prosperity than a strong job market. Presidents can influence job creation in many ways: budget, tax, fiscal, labor, energy, defense and regulatory policies, for example. The president is the leader of a huge federal government that consumes more than 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

During Clinton's eight years as president, the nation enjoyed an exceptional net increase in jobs: 22,760,000 from January 1993 through December 2000, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That's seven and a half times the anemic net increase of 3,020,000 jobs during Bush's White House tenure from January 2001 through December 2008.

Those striking job figures cast doubt on Republicans' claims that Bush's big first-term tax cuts would stimulate the economy and help create a wave of new jobs. While Bush boasts that the nation experienced 52 consecutive months of job growth during his tenure, the gains in some months were very modest — less, in fact, than the number of new jobs needed to accommodate population growth. And then came 2008, when the catastrophic job losses wiped out much of the prior gains. The unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent in December, the highest in 16 years. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts the jobless rate will top 9 percent in early 2010.

Defying customary budgetary logic, Bush showed an obsession for tax cuts even though federal spending was dramatically ramped up during his administration as the U.S. engaged in two costly wars and a global battle against terrorism, a new Medicare prescription drug program was created, and Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid faced spiraling costs and looming long-term funding crises. Bush's boneheaded, reckless policy has resulted in an unprecedented escalation of the national debt, which tops $10.6 trillion.

Contrastingly, taxes were increased by reasonable amounts during the prior administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton in order to rein in budget deficits. Yet, somehow, the economy and stock market boomed during most of Clinton's tenure, helping generate the huge job gains of nearly 23 million and a string of budget surpluses.

Now, President-elect Barack Obama faces the daunting task of attempting to resuscitate the economy and help foster creation of millions of jobs, while simultaneously dealing with a federal budget awash in red ink.

Critics have blamed Bush for lots of shortcomings as president. But no one can accuse him of leaving Americans to face another prolonged ordeal of "coasting through prosperity."