It’s not necessarily the economy, stupid

    President Obama officially launched his re-election campaign early today, telling his grassroots supporters via email that he needs two terms to complete his work (“we’ve always known that lasting change wouldn’t come quickly or easily”). We can all speculate on his chances, but it’s probably safe to assume that the state of the economy will be crucial in determining his fate.That’s the key factor in any re-election race, even though it’s not quite fair to the incumbent – as I’ll shortly explain.Voters tend to fixate on the economic trend line – are things getting better or worse? – and the latest macro stats look promising for Obama. The private sector added 230,000 jobs in March, according to the labor figures released on Friday; coupled with the 240,000 new private sector jobs recorded in February, that’s the biggest combined two-month gain since early 2006. (The Republicans have apparently ceased asking, “Where are the jobs?”) In fact, the jobless rate, now at 8.8 percent, has dropped a full point in the past four months – the biggest four-month decline since 1984.Moreover, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many economists believe the jobless rate will drop to 7.7 percent by election day 2012. If so, that kind of trend line would be roughly similar to the conditions that buoyed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election win. Reagan was stuck with a 10 percent jobless rate midway through his first term, but the trend line got better; by election day, it was down to 7.2 percent.As Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg told the press the other day, “It’s all about the economic psychology, and if people think the economy is getting better and is going to get better, that would give (Obama) a huge boost to his re-election.”But here’s where I feel compelled to play the contrarian, and suggest that we amend the Clinton ’92 mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Perhaps the phrase should read, “It’s the economy, stupid, but it shouldn’t be.”One of our great bipartisan myths is that the president of the United States has the clout to run the economy, create jobs, and sow the seeds of prosperity. It ain’t that simple. I first made this observation in print seven years ago, when Democratic presidential candidates were attacking President Bush for the economic ills that prevailed in early 2004 – namely, sluggish job growth and the rampant exodus of jobs to plants overseas.A president shares tax and spending powers with Congress; cedes monetary policy to the Federal Reserve; cedes hiring decisions to the private sector; and is powerless to reverse the free-trade globalization that both parties have championed for decades. And that list doesn’t even include the complicating events that are totally beyond any mortal’s control – such as, currently, an earthquake and tsunami that have damaged Japan’s westernized economy and threatened the global economic order in ways as yet unmeasured.As presidential scholar Allan Lichtman told me years ago, in defense of Bush, an incumbent seeking re-election “always gets judged on the basis of the economy’s performance – but that’s like getting the credit or blame for the sun or the rain. Today you’ve got a 24-hour global market, fueled by the Internet, with countries like China and India joining the great capitalist money chase. How can any president be held responsible for that?”Given the voters’ prediliction for voting their wallets and pocketbooks, however, presidents have no choice but to own the economy, and seek to spin it their way. And since psychology is so important, the first priority is to exude empathy, to convince voters that the guy at the top feels the pain of the folks at the bottom. Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992 in part because the challenger was way better at empathizing with those who were hurt by the ’90-’91 recession. Obama lacks that instinctive Clintonian talent, but it’s noteworthy that the president, in comments Friday about the latest statistical upticks, refrained from dancing in the end zone. Instead, he sought to feel the pain of those still sidelined: “You should know that keeping the economy going and making sure jobs are available is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. It’s the last thing I think about when I go to bed each night…I will not be satisfied until every American who wants a good job can find one; until every family gets a shot at the American dream.”If voters perceive that the economy is getting incrementally better (albeit slowly), a president can effectively feed that mood with steady doses of rhetorical optimism. In that sense, presidents can indeed have a measurable impact, because optimism is crucial to driving a consumer-based economy. As a voter in Toledo, Ohio (a drama teacher) once told me, “We really have to believe that a president can help fix the economy and create jobs – or else we’re just hopelessly lost, aren’t we?”On the other hand, a political scientist named Amy Carter, who specializes in the economy as a political issue, framed the question in a way that really got me thinking:”If a president really had control over the economy, then why would the economy ever be bad?”


    Trivia question: With Obama formally in the ’12 race, who’s the only Republican thus far to file the federal paperwork as an official presidential candidate?

    Not Tim Pawlenty, not Herman Cain, not Newt Gingrich.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    The correct answer is Fred Karger, a one-time Reaganite and veteran conservative consultant…who is openly gay. Good luck with that race, Fred!

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal