Facing stubbornly high unemployment and slow growth, swelling deficits and a divided Congress, President Obama is surely scrambling for an economic elixir. He has often cited the economy of the 1990s during the administration of his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, as his ideal. President Clinton managed to keep the economy moving ahead briskly despite repeated foreign currency crises—and despite raising taxes, which should have been an economic drag.
That seems to be Mr. Obama's plan. As he has said repeatedly, he wants to increase tax rates on "millionaires and billionaires" to "the same rate we had when Bill Clinton was president"—39.6%—"the same rate we had when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs."
Dream on. Given increases in state, local, payroll and other taxes since the 1990s, the effective rate is considerably higher. In California—the home of venture capital and of many job creators—the top marginal income-tax rate would exceed 50% thanks to the state's new 13.3% rate. The top capital gains rate in the Golden State, if Mr. Obama gets his way, would rise past 37%—the scheduled increase on Jan. 1 to 20% plus 3.8% in ObamaCare plus the 13.3%, since the state taxes capital gains as ordinary income.
Here's a better idea. If Mr. Obama wants the economy to get some of that Clinton mojo, he needs to pull a Rubin.
Robert Rubin, who took over as Treasury Secretary in January 1995 after 26 years at Goldman Sachs, understood a thing or two about markets. In particular, he knew that during the inflationary 1970s, weak dollars flowed into commodities instead of stocks and ventures that were vulnerable to shifts in the value of the currency. During the Reagan era, Mr. Rubin and Goldman Sachs thrived by learning that a strong dollar attracts productive investment that drives a growing economy.
Under President Clinton, Treasury Secretary Rubin told everyone who asked that "the U.S. supports a strong dollar." And he put the country's money where his mouth was, pushing a strong-dollar policy that included working with central banks to keep the dollar's value up by buying and selling currencies and advocating free trade. During Mr. Rubin's nearly five-year tenure at Treasury, the dollar price of oil and gold dropped; the unemployment rate declined to 4.3% from 5.6%; and the stock market more than doubled. The Clinton economic legacy exists primarily because Robert Rubin acted on what he learned during the 1980s.
But somewhere in the dozen years since the end of the Rubin era, the country has lost its way. As low-end manufacturing jobs began to be outsourced to Japan, then Taiwan and now China, support for a strong dollar dissipated as the mistaken view took hold that a weak dollar would boost exports and return U.S. manufacturing to its glory days.