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In my new The Week column, I argue that the economic recovery could well be a major plus for the Democratic presidential nominee:
Mitt Romney couldn’t beat President Obama in 2012 when the jobless rate was almost 8 percent, how can the next Republican nominee beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 when the unemployment rate could be under 5 percent? That’s the big question Republican presidential candidates must ask themselves. And the unpleasant political possibility for the GOP’s White House hopefuls is that the improving U.S. economy is, well, “likeable enough” for voters to give Democrats four more years in the Oval Office. At the very least, the economy might be such a strong tailwind for Democrats that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or whoever else the GOP puts up would need to run a near-flawless campaign to win.
I also respond to some obvious counters: What about the labor force participation rate? What about weak wage growth? What about Al Gore in 2000? But over in the Twitterverse, ace Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Zumbrun offers an additional caveat:
This is a good point, and one I have explored previously. Since the recovery has taken so long to gain traction — and it still isn’t red hot by any means — might the public give no one credit? Maybe Americans are viewing the economy more organically, something that with time has healed itself — regardless of Washington intervention like the 2009 fiscal stimulus or the Fed’s QE policy. Right now, for instance, President Obama is two points in the red on his economic approval rating [see above chart], though the trend has moved noticeably in his favor since late 2014. So not much credit there, yet. Another year and a half of jobs gains and wage growth, however, and Obama’s economic rating might be clearly positive. One could interpret that as the public giving Obama credit for steady, though unspectacular economic stewardship.
But can Clinton, assuming she’s the nominee, capitalize on those good feelings? As I mention in my The Week piece, Gore in his presidential campaign failed to really press hard the point that his economic agenda would be a continuation of Bill Clinton’s. (Maybe the “ick” factor of running on a de facto third Clinton term played a role.) Compare that with George Bush in 1988 and his “no new taxes” pledge, a ringing and memorable endorsement of Reaganomics. It already seems clear that Hillary Clinton will continue Obama’s inequality and “shared prosperity” message, a theme that seems to have some voter resonance. And this is a powerful message, too: “The economy collapsed under the last Republican president. Why would we ever want to go back?”
Certainly, Republicans used that approach for years, reminding voters of a failed Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Here is Phil Gramm at the 1992 Republican National Convention:
At the New York convention, [Bill] Clinton was like a used car salesman peddling his vehicle for change. The wax job was shiny, the hubcaps sparkled, the upholstery was spotless, the paint was new. But when you look under the hood, he’s peddling a model from the 1970’s: a Carter mobile with the axle broken and the frame bent to the left. It was a lemon for the nation; it was a lemon for the nation in the 1970’s when it sent inflation through the roof and income through the floor, and it is a lemon for America today.
Anyway, if Obama’s economic approval ratings are up, and Clinton is promising to continue his approach (public investment, higher taxes on the rich, pro-middle class policies) along with new ideas of her own, then, yes, I think the economy is a potential tailwind for her. It is then up to Republicans to persuasively argue that (a) the recovery could have been better with be GOP policies and — far more importantly — (b) the US is poorly positioned to be as prosperous in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. My conclusion in The Week:
Instead of trying to persuade Americans that the Obama recovery is worse than they think, Republicans would be better off talking about the future and how all Americans can flourish. During the recent UK election, the Labour Party did its best to badmouth the so-so economy under the Conservatives. The Tories managed to win by persuading middle-income voters they had the better agenda for the future. There is a lesson there for Republicans.