Let’s stipulate right at the outset: there are too many unemployed Americans (particularly long-term unemployed), wages are stagnant (the typical family is earning what it took home in 1997), and that income inequality has grotesquely grown to Louis XVIth proportions. Economically, it seems fair to say, these days will not be confused with “the best of times,” at least from the standpoint of equity.
It is therefore not surprising that many Democratic politicians and message gurus continue to bemoan the state of the recovery. Their economic prescription emphasizes initiatives to address unemployment, job creation, and improved wages. Having recently spent a few days in economically depressed northern Ohio, I have no doubt the message has some appeal to the electorate.
But I am not convinced it is the right message for Democrats. Unlike the Clinton campaign of 1992 where the rhetoric could be directed against a sitting Republican president, there is currently a Democrat in the White House. Reiterating that the recovery is faltering and that millions remain economically vulnerable reinforces a message of ineffectiveness that inevitably redounds onto the President, who for better or worse, symbolizes the Democratic Party for most voters.
Democrats rightly blame Republicans in Congress for failing to pass a slew of recovery bills like an increase in the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and an infrastructure package. But most voters do not ascribe Congress’ failures to the Republican majority in the House; close to half don’t even know the Republicans control the House. So trashing the recovery inevitably reflects back onto the one person voters can hold accountable, and that is President Obama, and that hurts him and Democrats alike.
Now what is particularly odd is that, while less than ideal, there actually is considerable evidence the economy has been improving. We have added over 10 million private sector jobs during 55 straight months of job growth, 248,000 in September, and over 700,000 jobs in manufacturing, the longest private sector job creation streak in U.S. history. Payrolls are expanding at the fastest pace in 15 years and unemployment dropped below 6% in September, the lowest rate in 6 years. The debt has shrunk by more than half, the investor optimism index is at its highest point in seven years, and the Dow Jones average has nearly tripled since President Obama took office, with barely a hint of inflation. As Obama summarized this week in a speech at Northwestern, “Across the board, the trend lines have moved in the right direction.”
And yet economic anxiety remains high and approval of Obama’s economic record remains mired in the low 40%s, which is very dangerous news for Democratic candidates. As one of my students recently wrote in a research paper, “What’s up with that?”
Of course, the frozen real income of middle class families and the stubborn long-term unemployment belie all the good news, as does the outlandish inequity in wealth concentration. And the persistence of so much bad data invariably dampens the willingness of candidates to tout positive news for fear of seeming oblivious to the negative evidence.
But if no one will take credit for the good news, then one can hardly blame voters for not focusing on much but the bad. A relentless emphasis on a poor economy works to taint the record of the person in the White House, but if that person is your own party leader, and an election is five weeks away, that may not be your best strategy. Moreover, emphasizing the negative inflames voters cynicism about the ability of government to accomplish much of anything, and impugning government is the Republican refrain.
Now to his credit, the President recited favorable economic indicators at Northwestern on Thursday, and he will hopefully continue do so for much of the remaining campaign season. As Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wisely advised yesterday, “He should brag” about the economy, calling on him to “sing his own praises and boast of what he’s done.” So should House Democrats and Democratic candidates, warning that to add anti-government Republicans to congressional ranks will jeopardize the economic recovery by encouraging the obstructionism and unresponsiveness that has characterized the GOP since Obama’s inauguration.
The fact is that virtually everything that has happened policy-wise to facilitate economic recovery is the result of Obama’s executive initiatives or because Democrats in Congress stood together and passed legislation with minimal assistance from Republicans. Left to their own devices, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for no legislative response – other than further economic sacrifice by the poor and middle class — to the worst economic implosion since the Big One: no TARP stabilization (paid back with interest, thank you), no prevention of the collapse of the auto industry (one million jobs saved, you’re welcome), no stimulus, no health care reform (which has helped achieve drastic reductions in inflation-generating health care costs), no termination of Bush’s obscene upper income tax cut, no unemployment benefit extensions: no nuthin’. Zippo.
The point here is that Democrats, including Obama, need to buck up and tell the American people that while work remains, a lot has been achieved to recover the economy, and that with a Republican Congress, what has been achieved will be jeopardized. Neutering the ability of government to function is no prescription for continued economic improvement. You can’t get that message across if most of what voters heard is gloom and doom. And you can’t successfully disseminate that message through occasional speeches that most voters have no idea occurred. There must be a persistent, aggressive, definitive message that despite the obstructionism and indifference of the Republicans, progress is being made. And if your goal is to address income inequity and the disproportionate influence of mega-money in politics, voters better shake off their lethargy and get to the polls.