It was arguably Ronald Reagan's favorite joke. In one version, two kids -- one an optimist, the other a pessimist -- rush downstairs on Christmas morning. The pessimistic kid gets a new bike and weeps that he'll probably break it soon. The optimistic kid is presented with an enormous pile of manure and squeals with delight: "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
In fact, the joke took on a life of its own in the Reagan White House. Whenever bad news came in, someone would remark, "There's got to be a pony in there somewhere."
Barack Obama, who always wanted to be a liberal version of Ronald Reagan, has his own version of the joke. It's not particularly funny, alas. In Mr. Obama's telling, the kid runs downstairs, sees a huge pile of manure and yells, "Yay! Manure! Who needs a pony!"
On the stump and in the recent debates, the president has been taking credit for things that are symptoms of a bad economy and touting them as major accomplishments.
Mr. Obama boasts that illegal immigration is the lowest it's been in decades, but he leaves out that, in the words of the Associated Press, "Much of the drop in illegal immigrants is due to the persistently weak U.S. economy, which has shrunk construction and service-sector jobs attractive to Mexican workers following the housing bust." Indeed, Census data shows that many Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, are heading home because they think the opportunities will be better south of the border.
Mr. Obama boasted at the Hofstra debate Wednesday night that his policies "lowered our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years." And it's true they're the lowest in 16 years.
One reason for that is an explosion in domestic oil production on private lands thanks to the technological breakthrough of hydraulic "fracking," an industry the Obama administration has been slowing down with increased regulations. This is the biggest driver of the decline in net oil imports, and President Obama has no business taking credit for it. Fossil fuel production on federal lands, notes economist Mark Perry, hit a nine-year low in 2011, and crude oil production dropped 14 percent on federal lands -- the biggest decrease in a decade.
And, to be fair, another reason for the decline is the longstanding trend of increasing energy-efficiency standards, which Mr. Obama supports. Energy expert Jeff Miller writes at the Energy Collective website that a whopping 1 percent of the total reduction in petroleum consumption can be chalked up to such measures. (Increased efficiency standards for cars, a frequent talking point for Mr. Obama, account for precisely 0 percent of the decline, according to Mr. Miller).
And then, of course, there's the unemployment rate. When the statistically odd drop in the unemployment rate for September was announced earlier this month, the president raced around the country celebrating the fact that we'd finally dropped below 8 percent unemployment. And you can hardly blame him.
But the reality is that the unemployment rate is only as "low" as it is because millions of Americans have given up looking for work. If you give up looking for work, you're no longer counted as part of the labor market. In other words, if everyone just gave up hope of finding a job, the unemployment rate would be zero!
The actual state of the labor market is miserable. More than 12 million Americans are out of work, and that number becomes 23 million if you include people who've stopped looking or can't find full-time work. The labor participation rate is the lowest it's been since the recession of 1981.
A few months ago, I wrote a column on how there were some silver linings to the dark cloud of a lousy economy, on the grounds that bad times often encourage good habits. Americans have been paying down their debts, building up their savings and having their tattoos removed -- all thanks in part to the bad economy and the financial crisis of 2008.
But there's something distinctly creepy about looking at the symptoms of a lousy economy and preening how you meant to do that. It makes you wonder if someone gave Mr. Obama a pony he'd shout with glee: "Yay! There must be some manure in here somewhere!"
Jonah Goldberg, a syndicated columnist, is the author of the new book "The Tyranny of Clichés." You can write to him by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.