As he enters the last year of his term, it’s the right time to ask if President Obama was a good or bad president for small business. He probably wasn’t the worst. But, by my grading scale, he was far from great. Let’s see how he’s done on the most important issues to small business owners like me.
Access to capital
Has the financing environment improved under the Obama administration? Yes.
Some will say that the Fed’s easy money policies, low inflation and low interest rates caused a flight of capital to the stock markets and investment funds, which in turn created lots of money for venture capital firms and investors. But, to his credit, the president didn’t interfere with the Fed. And he did champion the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startup (JOBS) Act. This legislation made it easier for companies to raise equity-crowdfunded money as well expanded the ability for “mini” public offerings of up to $50 million and provided for an incubation period for newly public companies so that they could have more time to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and other rules.
As a result there has been an enormous increase in both initial public offerings and venture investments. The Dodd-Frank legislation certainly didn’t make it easier for banks to loan money and is causing headaches for small community banks. But over the past few years there has been a proliferation of capital offered by online bankers like CAN Capital and Kabbage, crowdsourced sites such as Lendio and Lending Tree and even private corporations from Staples to Square to PayPal. Yes, it’s more expensive. And the guys on Wall Street are getting richer way more than everyone else. But the capital is there if small businesses want it.
Doing business with the government
Is it easier to do business with the government? Yes.
It’s still a pain in the neck, but navigating the federal government has improved during the Obama Administration. The president elevated the position of administrator of the Small Business Administration to a cabinet position and appointed the very competent Maria Contreras Sweet to lead the agency in 2014. Under her leadership, the SBA has already revamped its Website to a more user-friendly interface supported in numerous languages and introduced new programs to educate and help small companies get work from Washington. Per the agency’s most recent annual report, the SBA has increased the amount of loans extended to small businesses from $90.5 billion to $114.5 billion and increased the percent of total federal prime contract dollars awarded to small businesses from 21.9 percent in 2009 to 23.4 percent in 2013. The agency continues to add new financing programs to assist small businesses and start-ups.
The current administration also initiated and expanded its “QuickPay” and “SupplierPay” initiatives, both designed to help smaller contractors get payments quicker from the government and reduce red tape. It’s not all good though. On the downside, federal contractors have seen minimum wage requirements rise to $10.10 per hour and in 2017 will be required to provide a minimum seven paid days off a year to their employees.
Is our healthcare system better? No.
In fact, we pretty much have the same problems we’ve had for decades. And a few new ones too. Although small businesses with less than 50 full-time equivalent employees are exempted from having to provide affordable healthcare to their full timers starting this January, we all continue to feel the effects of rising healthcare premiums and complexities in the system. Even as it enters its’ sixth year, we’re seeing major storm clouds ahead: fewer new sign-ups will put pressure on insurance companies; some co-ops are failing; states are approving higher rates; choices are diminishing; and consolidations in the healthcare industry are driving less competition and increased costs. There are more questions and concerns about our nation’s healthcare, particularly the costs and complexities of coverage, than ever. This issue continues to be among the highest anxieties suffered by small business owners and the jury is still out whether the Affordable Care Act will ever reach its goals.
Is the economy better now than before 2009? No.
I agree with a recent analysis by Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi where they concluded that the “… massive and multifaceted policy responses to the financial crisis and Great Recession — ranging from traditional fiscal stimulus to tools that policymakers invented on the fly — dramatically reduced the severity and length of the meltdown that began in 2008; its effects on jobs, unemployment, and budget deficits; and its lasting impact on today’s economy.”
However, the Wall Street Journal has called this recovery “the worst expansion since World War II” saying “…since the recession ended in June 2009, the economy has advanced at a 2.2% annual pace through the end of last year. That’s more than a half-percentage point worse than the next-weakest expansion of the past 70 years, the one from 2001 through 2007. While there have been highs and lows in individual quarters, overall the economy has failed to break out of its roughly 2% pattern for six years.”
Goldman Sachs says next year’s economy will be “a dud.” Middle class wages have remain stuck and although unemployment is down, the number of workers not participating in the workforce has increased dramatically. For most small business owners who survived the Great Recession, we’re grateful for any growth, but – other than certain hot industries like tech or regions such as the Bay Area, we’re all struggling with to generate more demand in a slow economy. Economists and pundits will argue over what the government needs to do to stimulate growth but the bottom line is that the economy has been sputtering for going on seven years now.
Is the country’s national debt and deficit improved since 2009? No.
With the president’s signing of the latest budget/debt-ceiling bill, our national debt is projected to be approximately $20 trillion when he leaves office, which is about twice the level when he took over in 2009. In addition to the $800 billion spent as part of 2009’s Recovery Act, the government has continued to rack up enormous annual deficits each year of his presidency. Some can argue that as long as debts are at a reasonable level of Gross Domestic Product this is not a big problem. Others think that we can grow our way out of this problem. But most business owners I know are terrified at this looming liability, the uncertainty that it puts on markets, the limits that debts impose on our government to spend when necessary and the anti-growth measures (higher taxes? more sequestration?) that will be necessary to one day bring this back under control.
Is our tax environment better? No.
Since the president took office in 2009, Americans have paid higher personal and capital gains taxes, seen a rise in Medicare taxes, a decrease in deductions and the loss of certain incentives (accelerated depreciation, research and development credits) and many other tax increases too numerous to mention that have resulted in the United States falling to No. 12 in the world among economically “free” countries, according to the (right-leaning) Heritage Foundation. For a small business owner, taxes can take away anywhere from 20-40 percent of income, particularly when you figure in the impact of state and local amounts. This situation has grown far worse over the past few years, not better.
Is our regulatory environment better? No.
Again, the Heritage Foundation reports: “In its first six years the Obama Administration has imposed 194 major regulations on the private sector. That figure is more than twice the number imposed by the Bush Administration in its first six years.” There’s no question that the regulatory environment has increased and for those businesses operating in financial services, energy and environmental industries it seems that new regulations appear almost daily. But they’re not alone. In just the past year, the Obama administration has overseen new rules that allow unions to form much faster and overtime pay to increase while pushing hard for mandated paid time off and increased minimum wages. All of these regulations, whether signed into law or promoted by the president all contribute to more costs for the small business owner. The environment under this administration has unquestionably been more populace, rather than business driven.
So what’s the president’s final grade? Using a college GPA scale he’s coming in at a 1.9 or slightly less than a C (2.0) average. Is that the kind of GPA small businesses want their president to have? Is that the kind of GPA we want our own kids to have?
Gene Marks authors Main Street Morning, a daily round-up of small business news for The Washington Post. He owns the Marks Group, a Bala Cynwyd Pa. consulting firm that helps clients with customer relationship management. Follow Gene Marks and On Small Business on Twitter.