Backdating the Recession: A Report by Media Matters for America ; Release date: May 3, 2004

Even before President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, his surrogates began to suggest that the Bush administration was inheriting an economic recession from the Clinton administration. Over the last three and a half years, the media has been awash in false references to Bush “inheriting a recession” from Clinton. A recent Media Matters for America poll found that 62 percent of Americans hold the false belief that the recession began under Clinton.

In March 2001, the U.S. economy went into recession for the first time in ten years, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER.) NBER -- the private, nonpartisan organization whose business cycle announcements have long been considered the definitive word on the topic -- announced its determination on November 26, 2001:

The NBER's Business Cycle Dating Committee has determined that a peak in business activity occurred in the U.S. economy in March 2001. A peak marks the end of an expansion and the beginning of a recession. The determination of a peak date in March is thus a determination that the expansion that began in March 1991 ended in March 2001 and a recession began. The expansion lasted exactly 10 years, the longest in the NBER's chronology.

NBER's president, Martin Feldstein, was a Bush campaign adviser who has long been close to the Bush family, as the National Review's Lawrence Kudlow recently noted:

Conventional thinking has Greenspan departing in 2006 and Bush appointing Harvard economist Martin Feldstein as his successor. The former Reagan economic adviser has strong ties to the administration, dating back to Papa Bush and extending through Bush Jr.'s presidential run, when he sat on the campaign's economic policy committee. Since then he has frequently briefed both the president and vice president. As president of the National Bureau of Economic Research and a prolific writer, he enjoys considerable credibility inside the economic establishment.

In short, NBER is widely respected, long recognized as the arbiter of recessions, and is headed by a Bush ally; so if NBER says the recession began in March 2001, the recession began in March 2001.

Why, then, does a clear majority of Americans think the recession “definitely” or “probably” began under Clinton? In a poll conducted for Media Matters for America, pollster Geoff Garin asked respondents if the following statement is true: “Statistics show that the current economic recession actually began during Bill Clinton's administration, before George W. Bush took office.” The results:

Definitely true: 34 percent
Probably true: 28 percent
Probably not true: 15 percent
Definitely not true: 16 percent
Not sure: 7 percent

Sixty-two percent of Americans think the recession began under Clinton; a plurality says it is “definitely true.” Only 16 percent are certain of the fact that the recession began on Bush's watch. How can so few Americans know who was president when the most recent recession began?

The answer is simple: Conservatives have waged a successful three-and-a-half year media campaign to convince the public that the recession began under Clinton. The effort began before Bush took office; Vice President-elect Dick Cheney kicked it off with a December 3, 2000, appearance on NBC's Meet the Press:

CHENEY: There's growing evidence out there, Tim, that the economy is slowing down. We're seeing it in automobile sales and a lot of other areas, earnings falling off for corporations, and we may well be on the front edge of a recession here. ...

RUSSERT: Do you think we're on the front edge of a recession?

CHENEY: I think so. ...

Two days later, FOX News Channel political contributor and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried Cheney's line forward on FOX, saying, "[T]here's a danger he's going to inherit a recession."[1] On December 14, 2000, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told CNN, "[W]hen I listen to and talk to my fellow economists, they're predicting almost with a uniform voice that this new president may inherit a recession."[2] Gingrich continued the onslaught on the December 18, declaring on FOX, “I think there is a very severe danger of a recession. And I think that the Bush-Cheney administration should be planning on having inherited a recession as the farewell gift from Clinton.”[3] By the time President-elect Bush and President Clinton held a brief joint media availability on December 19, the suggestion that Bush would “inherit a recession” had already taken hold, resulting in questions from a reporter to both Bush and Clinton:

REPORTER: Mr. President-elect, talking about the economy, about problems with the economy, are you going to inherit a recession from President Clinton? And, President Clinton, what are your thoughts about that? [4]

On December 21, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Sandy Grady wrote of the Bush camp's claims that a recession was already underway:

Strange, the noisy alarms by Bush & Co. about a recession. Dubya, noting California brownouts, talks of “an energy crisis bringing on a downturn.” One of his economists spoke fearfully of “softness in the economy, auto sales, signs of worry.” There's spin behind their gloom: “Hey, it's Clinton's fault, not ours, if the 2001 economy goes south.” So Bush was visibly uncomfortable and Clinton bemused at the first press question to Dubya: “Are you going to inherit a recession from Clinton?”

Through most of 2001, the “inherited a recession” line slowed to a trickle, though during a roundtable discussion on FOX News in March, anchor Brit Hume suggested that it was Democrats who were trying to manipulate the public's impression of when the recession began:

HUME: All right, now, let me just -- let -- all of us suggest that the deeper meaning of the argument being mounted, it's a silly economic argument, that you could talk the economy into a recession. But it -- might it work, Juan, as a way of making this the Bush recession rather than the Clinton recession inherited by Bush?

WILLIAMS: Yes, and -- but it's not silly to say you can't talk yourself into trouble, because you can lower consumer confidence.

HUME: Well ...

BIRNBAUM: Yes, I think Democrats want the Bush recession. They want people to think of it that way. I'm not sure it'll work.

HUME: Bill?

KRISTOL: Recession, recession, recession. I'm saying that R-word over and over.

HUME: No, but do you think that it will work to pin this, I mean, can this -- does this become the Bush recession...? [5]

At the time of this exchange, there had not yet been a determination that there was a recession. And yet Hume was flatly stating that a recession was underway, that it started under Clinton, and that it was “inherited” by Bush.

Otherwise, the “inherited recession” line lay relatively dormant -- appearing once every few months -- until August 2002, when it was suddenly unavoidable. Then-Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mitch Daniels declared on FOX News Channel, “He [Bush] inherited that recession from the previous administration. Case is closed.”[6] On CNN that same morning, Daniels announced, “The recession this administration inherited last year is over.”[7] And he was back on CNN that afternoon to add, “It was the recession that he [Bush] inherited and the cost of the war and repairing the damage from last September that put us in deficit.”[8]

None of Daniels's false comments were contradicted by his cable network hosts, despite widely available facts about when the recession actually had begun. Suddenly the Republican line that Bush had “inherited” a recession was everywhere: Conservative guests on news programs repeated it with impunity and were almost never corrected by their hosts; meanwhile, TV news reporters routinely quoted or paraphrased Republican officials, almost always failing to correct them.

On September 18, 2002, for example, CNN's John King told viewers:

The administration acknowledges the economy, as our poll shows, is the number one issue. That's why the president, in almost every speech, tries to remind voters he inherited a recession. [9]

Five days later, CNN's Suzanne Malveaux used similar language:

[Bush] took up that very issue earlier today, saying -- reminding voters that the administration inherited the recession, again making the argument that tax relief is really what turned the economy around, also stressing some domestic issues critical to the GOP, namely the need for defense spending as well as terrorism insurance, and again taking the opportunity to blast Democrats in the Senate for not passing his own version of homeland security.[10]

On November 6, 2002, FOX News Channel's Sean Hannity made the false assertion in an exchange with New Jersey Democratic Senator John Corzine:

HANNITY: All right. All right. I want to -- let me go back to this economic stuff here for just a second. If the Democrats -- first of all, this president -- you know and I know and everybody knows -- inherited a recession. That's a fact. So ...

CORZINE: It wasn't a recession.

HANNITY: Wait. Wait a minute. Yes, it was. It was a recession.

CORZINE: It wasn't. It wasn't.

HANNITY: Two quarters ...

CORZINE: It was slowing down.

HANNITY: No, it was by every definition a recession. So this president comes in. Like John Kennedy, a Democrat, he cut taxes to stimulate the economy. Should the Democrats have run on rescinding the tax cut?[11]

Hannity, clearly fond of the “inherited recession” line, came back to it again and again ... and again:

HANNITY, 5/6/03: Now here's where we are. The inherited Clinton/Gore recession. That's a fact.[12]

HANNITY, 7/10/03: The president inherited a recession.[13]

HANNITY, 12/12/03: They did inherit the recession. They did inherit the recession. We got out of the recession.[14]

HANNITY, 1/6/04: And this is the whole point behind this ad, because the president did inherit a recession.[15]

HANNITY, 1/15/04: Historically in every recovery, because the president rightly did inherit a recession. But historically, the lagging indicator always deals with employment.[16]

HANNITY, 1/20/04: Congressman Deutsch, maybe you forgot but I'll be glad to remind you, the president did inherit that recession.[17]

HANNITY, 2/2/04: He did inherit a recession, and we're out of the recession.[18]

HANNITY, 2/23/04: The president inherited a recession.[19]

HANNITY, 3/3/04: The president inherited a recession.[20]

HANNITY, 3/3/04: Well, you know, we're going to show ads, as a matter of fact, in the next segment, Congressman. Thanks for promoting our next segment. What I like about them is everything I've been saying the president ought to do: is focusing in on his positions, on keeping the nation secure in very difficult times, what he's been able to do to the economy after inheriting a very difficult recession, and of course, the economic impact of 9/11.[21]

On March 11, 2004, Michael Meehan, a senior adviser to Senator John Kerry's presidential campaign, appeared on Hannity & Colmes. Kerry had recently referred to some Bush surrogates as “the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen.” Hannity repeatedly pressed Meehan to say whether Kerry thinks Hannity is a “crooked liar.” Meehan responded:

MEEHAN: Just last night, Sean, you said on the show the Clinton-Gore recession and then came 9/11. That's just not true. There wasn't a Clinton-Gore recession. The Bush White House will tell you it started in March 2001. This is your show, last night, your words. This is the kind of thing we have to fight back on. That's why I'm on the show today.[22]

Five days later, on March 16, Hannity asked Commerce Secretary Don Evans to confirm that Bush had “inherited a recession:”

HANNITY: All right. You need to settle this once and for all. We had a John Kerry supporter on the other night, yelling at me because I pointed out the truth, which is the recession was inherited by the president. Am I right or is he right?

EVANS: You're right, Sean. Actually the third quarter of 2000, we had negative growth in the economy. The fourth quarter was positive. But then the first three quarters of 2001 were also negative. You know, I think technically they called it in March of 2001, but really you saw negative growth in the third quarter of 2000. You saw the first three quarters of 2001 were all negative growth, as well. And so yes, we were handed a recession.

HANNITY: All right. So this is where I view the economic scenario as we head into this election. The president inherited a recession. We now have the longest quarter of growth in 20 years, where the American people have got two tax cuts. We've been able to overcome the impact of the economy, which was devastating as a result of 9/11, and the unemployment rate now is lower than the average of the 1990's, and it's still a lagging indicator. Doesn't sound too bad to me.[23]

Note that Evans pointed out that “technically” the recession began in March 2001. Later, in an exchange with Alan Colmes, Evans again acknowledged the recession's true start date:

COLMES: But let me also get on this issue of the recession, the National Bureau of Economic Research's business cycle dating committee is the one that the president's own economic advisers say is the arbiter of when a recession begins. They say it began in March of 2001. And that is a group the president himself has said he respects as the arbiter of that kind of thing. So why do we keep saying it is a Bush-Gore -- Clinton-Gore recession?

EVANS: Well, two points, Alan. ... You know, on the other issue with respect to when the recession, you know, you're talking about a technical issue of when a board technically declared the beginning of the recession. Oftentimes what you look to, though, is when you have consecutive quarters of negative growth. And we saw negative growth in the third quarter of -- of 2000. The first three quarters of 2001 were negative growth. So you know, you can debate whether or not it was January or March. The board said March of 2001. But there was no question in anybody's mind that the economy was going straight south. The stock market peaked in 2000, and it began its collapse in March of 2000. So the economy was clearly moving into a recession.[24]

The Commerce secretary of the United States -- who was also Bush's 2000 campaign chairman -- admitted on Hannity's TV show that the recession began in March 2001. Did that stop Sean Hannity from claiming that Bush “inherited” the recession? Ten days later, Hannity said:

HANNITY, 3/26/04: First of all, we've got to put it into perspective, is that the president inherited a recession.[25]

HANNITY, 4/2/04: Clearly, we're out of the recession that President Bush inherited.[26]

HANNITY, 4/6/04: Stop me where I'm wrong. The president inherited a recession, the economic impact of 9/11 was tremendous on the economy, correct?[27]

As far back as July 2003, The Washington Post had reported on the Bush administration's efforts to back-date the recession:

With the start of his reelection campaign in the past two weeks, President Bush has revived his pastime of blaming his predecessor, Bill Clinton, for the economic recession. ... It's a good applause line for a crowd of red-meat political supporters. The trouble is it's a case of what the president has called, in another context, revisionist history. The recession officially began in March of 2001 -- two months after Bush was sworn in -- according to the universally acknowledged arbiter of such things, the National Bureau of Economic Research. And the president, at other times, has said so himself.[28]

Despite the Post's efforts to correct the record, the conservative misinformation continued to spread. In January 2004, the Charleston Post and Courier published an editorial that stated:

President Bush has correctly pointed out that the combination of a recession he inherited and a war on terror forced upon him has precluded any viable approach that would balance the federal budget. He also has correctly pointed out that his tax cuts have helped turn the economy around.

On March 9, The Chattanooga Times Free Press editorialized, “President George W. Bush responded to inherited economic recession by cutting taxes for every income taxpayer to reduce tax injustice and create more jobs.” An Albany Times Union editorial on March 18 noted, “Indeed, the CBO found that only 6 percent of the deficit can be blamed on the recession that Mr. Bush inherited on taking office, and the economic slowdown that followed 9/11 attacks.” On March 19, The Florida Times-Union declared in an editorial that the current economy “represents an incredible turnaround from the Clinton recession that President Bush inherited.”

On his MSNBC program Hardball, host Chris Matthews simultaneously falsely argued that Bush “inherited a recession” and then said correctly that the recession began in March 2001:

MARK MELLMAN: Well, that's fundamentally not true. The reality is when George Bush came into office, he promised to create four million jobs; we've lost four million. Just a couple weeks ago, he promised to create 2.6 million jobs this year, signed his name to it.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: But the ad makes clear that they inherited a recession.

MELLMAN: If they don't create 2.6 million jobs this year, he's failed to meet his own standard.

MATTHEWS: But they inherited a recession from Clinton that cost all those jobs.

MELLMAN: That's baloney.

MATTHEWS: What do you mean? When did the recession hit? When did the recession hit?

MELLMAN: But the reality ...

MATTHEWS: March of 2001, the minute they got into office.