Monday, September 10, 2018

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker recognizes

that the nation’s economic fortunes depend on more than the occupant of the Oval Office and his policies, driven as well by interest rates, technological innovation and the health of the global economy — trends beyond the control of any president. Voters and historians nonetheless assign credit and blame to presidents for the state of the economy. When it comes to economics, presidents would rather be remembered as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton than Herbert Hoover.

Whatever the proper assignment of credit for a nation's economy, the debate between President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump (and their supporters) over favorable economic indicators may have political impact.  In his coming-outspeech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on September 7, the former president argued

And then the reckless behavior of financial elites triggered a massive financial crisis, ten years ago this week, a crisis that resulted in the worst recession in any of our lifetimes and caused years of hardship for the American people, for many of your parents, for many of your families. Most of you weren't old enough to fully focus on what was going on at the time, but when I came into office in 2009, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. 800,000. Millions of people were losing their homes. Many were worried we were entering into a second Great Depression. So we worked hard to end that crisis, but also to break some of these longer term trends. And the actions we took during that crisis returned the economy to healthy growth and initiated the longest streak of job creation on record. And we covered another 20 million Americans with health insurance and we cut our deficits by more than half, partly by making sure that people like me, who have been given such amazing opportunities by this country, pay our fair share of taxes to help folks coming up behind me.

And by the time I left office, household income was near its all-time high and the uninsured rate had hit an all-time low and wages were rising and poverty rates were falling. I mention all this just so when you hear how great the economy's doing right now, let's just remember when this recovery started.

I mean, I'm glad it's continued, but when you hear about this economic miracle that's been going on, when the job numbers come out, monthly job numbers, suddenly Republicans are saying it's a miracle. I have to kind of remind them, actually, those job numbers are the same as they were in 2015 and 2016.

It doesn't work. There are three strategic approaches to the economy, which Republicans and the "liberal media" (common slur before "Fake News" replaced it)  assure us is humming right along. One is to ignore the issue, figuring it's not going to be a positive in November to whatever extent it's discussed. 

That did not work for the GOP on immigration, which the party largely ignored, Romney's "self-deportation" being essentially kicking the matter down the road. The immigration issue cost the GOP net votes until Trump came along and put it front and center.

Still, every circumstance is different and in an environment otherwise mostly positive for Democrats, avoiding the whole issue may enable Democrats to retake the House of Representatives.

Or the Democrats could- with a unified message- emphasizing that inflation, gas prices, and interest rates are up and opiate addiction is not abating, reinforcing the perspective voters had in November, 2016 that something is not quite right.

The third option is the one taken by Obama, which might be simply rephrased as "the economy is doing well, but it's the  economy President Obama crafted and left for President Trump."

This is a political loser. Voters associate the economy of the present with the current president, whomever he may be.  

Some realize, as Baker explained, that the President of the USA has only a limited impact on the economy. Most, however, do not read The New York Times, a majority of whom either will assume President Trump is responsible or will want to give credit to someone for the good economic times they hear we're living in. That someone inevitably will be the President, the current occupant of the White House.

Barack Obama is nobody's fool (except maybe Vladimir Putin in the fall of 2006, but that's another matter).  Twice uttering the name of the individual most responsible for exploiting resentments and threatening democracy was helpful, especially because Obama and anti-Trump politicians have been frightened to mention the name "Trump." His call to arms, or rather the voting booth, was valuable, as was his reminder that what Charlie Pierce refers to as the "prion disease" did "not start with Donald Trump." (Unfortunately, that did lead Obama down the path to birthsiderism.)

But when Barack Obama remarks "let's just remember when this recovery started," it is self-serving. It's meant to restore a legacy that President Trump is trampling on and thereby rendering virtually useless. It's not intended to convince people to vote or to vote Democratic when they do.  Virtually no one cares when the recovery started, nor that jobs were created when Obama was President. They do care that it has continued under the incumbent, whatever the negligible impact of his policies, and that jobs have been created under the incumbent.

So Democrats have to skirt the issue or make the case that the lives of Americans have deteriorated since this president took office. Alternatively, the former President can continue to say "it's because of me, stupid" and preserve his legacy which, apparently, is what a lot of those eight years were about.

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