It’s not the economy, stupid!

By Bill Schneider
October 3, 2012

Tonight’s debate could be the most negative presidential debate ever. That’s because the best thing each candidate has going for him is negative opinion of the other guy.

This election was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama. That’s what usually happens when an incumbent is running for re-election. Sometimes the incumbent is popular enough to win re-election (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996). Sometimes he’s not (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992).

The biggest single factor determining the incumbent’s popularity is the economy: good in 1984 and 1996, terrible in 1980 and 1992. By that standard, Obama should be in deep trouble. That’s the big surprise this year. He’s not.

If Obama were running against himself this year, he would lose. But he’s running against Mitt Romney – and that is a race he can win.

He can win because Democrats have managed to frame the election as a choice – not a referendum. It’s not just “keep Obama or fire him”. It’s “keep Obama or hire Romney”. And the simple fact is, most voters don’t want to hire Romney.

The Pew poll reports that “Romney is the only presidential candidate over the past seven election cycles [since at least 1988] to be viewed more unfavorably than favorably” by voters. Even losers like Michael Dukakis (1988), George H.W. Bush (1992), Bob Dole (1996) and John Kerry (2004) had a positive image. Not Romney.

When Mother Jones magazine leaked a video of Romney’s remarks at a Florida fundraiser last month, the effect was devastating. The Republican candidate came across as disdainful of Americans who depend on the government safety net, depicting them as slackers and freeloaders. Look at the polls of battleground state voters since Sept. 17, when the video was released. Every state shows a widening lead for Obama.

This election is a choice between two contenders. That’s what makes it different from the 2010 midterm. In 2010, there was no other guy. It was just an up-or-down vote on Obama and the economy. The result was a catastrophic defeat for Democrats.

Romney’s mission will be to focus on Obama’s failed record. He started with his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, when he spoke about Obama more in sorrow than in anger. “I wish President Obama had succeeded,” Romney said, “because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division.”

By naming Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to the ticket, however, Romney took the focus off the economy.  Republicans should be discussing jobs.  Instead, they’re discussing Medicare.

There’s something very strange about the economic issue this year. Most objective indicators show that the economic recovery has stalled. The unemployment rate has been stuck at more than 8 percent all year. Job growth is less than 100,000 a month – not enough to keep up with the growing labor force. The Commerce Department revealed that economic growth in the second quarter of this year was just 1.3 percent. The Federal Reserve has just announced a new drive to revive the economy. As Paul Ryan put it: “The Federal Reserve is saying that we don’t have a recovery.”

At the same time, subjective indicators are improving. Consumer confidence is up. The number of voters who believe the country is headed in the right direction is the highest it has been since 2009, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. So is the number who believe the economy will get better in the next year. Most Americans think the nation’s economy is recovering.

What’s driving the optimism? Politics. Optimism about the economy is growing fastest among Democrats. It’s their way of expressing confidence in Obama. Instead of the weak economy dragging Obama down, the president’s growing popularity is pulling economic confidence up.

Most forecasting models assume that the economy is the cause and the election is the effect. That may be backwards.

Just as it was in 1992. The economy was actually recovering in 1992. But voters refused to acknowledge it because they had lost confidence in President George H.W. Bush. He didn’t seem to be doing anything to boost the economy, and that made the economy seem worse.

Moreover, Bush seemed hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Americans. Message to Romney: Whatever you do in this debate, don’t look at your watch.

14 comments

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romney’s problem may very well be that we’ve heard the same message for 30 years. “reduce taxes on the wealthy and large corporations and we will all rise with all the good things this will do”. well, it has not worked th epast two times, and it will not work a third time. trickle down is just another way for the rich to get richer at our expense. and that’s the goal of the gop, not getting the rest of us better off. always was, always will be. personaly i can’t believe anyone outside of the 1% even listens to this BS anymore, except the gop faith based reality kicks in with the hatred and putridness of rush and fox and we are where we are. just look at how many idiots out there believe obama is a muslim born outside the US. the same idiots who believe (by faith again) that saddam had wmd’s just before we invaded, an active nuclear program, and anything to do with 9/11. they haven’t seen a fact that can’t be ignored by faith.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

The economy is the direct result of free trade and tax policies that have enriched the wealthy class at the expense of everyone else.

It’s the wealthy, stupid!

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

If Romney wins, we all get trickle down economics forced even harder down our throats. If Obama wins, Dems will be celebrating, but GOP planners will also be celebrating. Why? Because the GOP will control the House, most likely the Senate, and the Supreme Court. We will have total government stagnation, worse than the last 4 years. Once again, making the choice of whom to vote for is choosing the lesser of the evils.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

“There’s something very strange about the economic issue this year.” No, go back a decade or so. “Most objective indicators show that the economic recovery has stalled.” Well, duh? “Consumer confidence is up…[as]…is the number who believe the economy will get better in the next year. Most Americans think the nation’s economy is recovering.” They’re wrong. The “rules of the game” game have fundamentally and permanently changed.

Blame the availability and effect of inexpensive computers. The cubicles of legions of clerks, secretaries, administrative assistants, lower level managers have been cleared out. Those “middle class white collar jobs” were not “outsourced”. They’ve become unnecessary. What remains of management knows without any doubt that “people” are no longer “our greatest resource”.

Those “jobs” that can be automated increasingly will be. Computer controlled machines and processes operate up to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without complaint, overtime, raises, “continuing education”, promotions, time off, breaks, sick leave, medical insurance, families, vacations, or retirement.

“Full time positions” are being redefined such that most can be adequately filled with part-time people basically functional in simple math and communication or record entry who can be fully efficient in a week or two “on the job”. These are “dead end” positions from which only the very “cream of the crop” will ever advance into a “middle class career path”, for which there is an ever-growing surplus of people increasingly desperate to fill.

The “new normal” is that population growth is suddenly a drag on our economy instead of a benefit. Society needs fewer and fewer people of lower and lower basic skills to function. The “middle class” of such a society will continue to “hollow out”shrink until only government/union workers and entrepeneurs remain. It will be a wild ride!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Bill Schneider: I couldn’t help but notice that nowhere in your entire op-ed do you mention Congress. Remember Congress? Remember that we have three branches of government? Remember Congress’s role with the federal purse strings?

America’s economic freefall had been stopped. It’s turned around, but it’s still struggling. No detailing of the reasons for the slow recovery is complete, or even accurate, without mentioning the Republican’s unprecedented determination to thwart every attempt by this President to accomplish anything that might benefit this country and, therefore, be construed as a victory for President Obama. You fail to even allude to this essential fact in understanding today’s burdened recovery. You’re too much a seasoned professional to conclude anything but partisan bias, guilt by omission. Or maybe just another example of today’s journalism’s ubiquitous false balance, though I don’t see much balance of any kind in this piece.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

@flashrooster,

I remember that pro is the opposite of con, as in progress and Congress. We look at the same world through different perspectives. Congress is the machine. The Executive Branch is supposed to leadership and provide “big ideas” for the machine to chew on.

While I don’t agree with the entire “agenda” of the Tea Party freshmen, I must give these courageous and audacious people a lot of credit. When they saw no solutions for America’s “economic unsustainability on it’s current path” coming from the Executive Branch of government, they did what few have done before. They put on the brakes. That took guts, but benefitted all Americans.

Their refreshing collective solidarity has consistently, persistently and tenaciously to their last breath resisted any and all further growth in our federal government or it’s debt limit at a time when such “growth” had become accepted as unavoidable and “routine”. It’s just common sense to stop the train before trying to fix a major problem, isn’t it? But all the special interests whose “pork” will be at risk will vilify those who stopped a party long out of control that no one could pay for in the end.

I admit their actions have been crude, like the sledgehammer. Such action is extreme, appropriate only in emergency. Let us hope they possess the wisdom to know that, now that they have everyone’s attention.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep thinks the Tea Party opposes “all the special interests whose “pork” will be at risk”, when, in fact, the Tea Party merely strengthens the manipulative hand of those big-money interests. By contributing to gridlock, the TP has followed the publicly declared marching orders of the Republicans to block anything that could look like a success for the administration. They are simple wreckers and have not put forward any constructive ideas.

Posted by bcrawf | Report as abusive

Paul Ryan is disadvantage for Romney because Paul Ryan cannot be trusted with “facts” and data. He lied about his marathon personal best time- a clear indicator that the man is deceptive. Romney is not any better with the truth as we saw last night during the debates.

Posted by Caspary | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep –

Well, I’m flabbergasted!

Your comments on the state of the US economy are (mostly) correct, which is quite a welcome change.

Now, if we could just get you and the other 99% to realize what must be done about it, we might be able to survive.

Otherwise, “It will (indeed) be a wild ride!”

I’m not holding my breath.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep –

Actually, in reading you comment on the state of the US economy over again, I have to admit it shows quite a perceptive grasp of what is wrong in terms of the symptoms you describe.

Care to take a stab at delving beneath the surface and being more explicit as to the underlying issues that brought us to this point?

I would be interested in hearing what you think we should do about it.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

I know where Obama wants to head us to. Whether he can achieve it is depending on his management skills. On the other hand, I dont know exactly where Romney will lead us to. One day he wants to cut tax, another day he wants to raise tax. While the economy is still shaky, he wants to increase defense budget on the expense of cut on other programs serving American in need of help. One day he wants to wrap up Obamacare, another day he wants to keep it with some changes. The pattern keeps repeating on various issues that I think he is torn by conflicting advises. If he has a clear vision of where he wants to lead the country too, as Obama does, he would not behave as he did. Do you know where Mitt stands? I dont.

Probably Karl Rove’s advice of “being as vague as you can” is at its best — Another scam is at work.

Posted by Freedom4A | Report as abusive

@Gordon2352,

When the fundamentals of Capitalism harness the self interest in each American to the “national plow” the inevitable result is high productivity. High productivity makes a high AVERAGE standard of living economically possible. Capitalism is the only “economic system” that does not merely change the hand wielding the knife dividing a fixed economic pie.

Capitalism grows a bigger pie such that each with a “seat at the table” gets more. It’s promise: “If you work harder, longer, smarter than your peers and thus produce more, you can keep enough of the “extra” for yourself and yours to make your extra effort worthwhile.” One isn’t, in my opinion, entitled to a “seat at the table” just by being born. Like a good reputation, each seat must be earned again and again every day.

BOTH major American parties today have ideological “platform baggage” that has reduced voters’ “choice” to one of “bad” and “worse”. Speeches notwithstanding, I don’t believe either party seriously intends to reduce the size or grasp of a federal government whose various components judge “success” by their budget and number of bureaucrats on the payroll. Our elections process is but a series of illusions…mass entertainment without substance or predictable effect.

Few would disagree that the “road to fiscal reality and economic sustainability will require reducing the size and expense of government. It is no secret that current “entitlement obligations” need to be reduced and our tax code revised. But “the Devil is in the details” of whose “ox is being gored” in that process. Each party fights for the “special interests” of respective constituencies. Some are “strange bedfellows”, with the glue binding them little more than “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

When politicians duped the American public into paying them, a whole new privileged class of opportunists arose not unlike the priests between man and God(s) whose extended palm is always up. When a majority of elected officials at the federal, state and local level come from the legal field, is it any wonder that the interests of the politicians and the lawyers and the judges take precedence over those of “we, the people” who pay all the bills? If we judge by their actions and not by their words, the great majority of elected representatives of “we, the people” most certainly no NOT represent those whose taxes pay for posh offices, posh salaries, and staff.

So while “we, the people” are today duped into the game of “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow under that tree”, there is no beginning and no end. What is needed, instead, is national dialog, debate and eventual consensus as to what kind of country we need. Notice I said “need”, not “want”.

America is a rich and prosperous country that can well afford it’s needs, but no country in the history of the world has been rich enough to give it’s people everything it’s people want (or think they “deserve”. We must, once and for all, replace the prevailing political and governmental mind set that “if we spend it they will pay” with acceptance that even America and Americans must adopt and live within their means.

Any society is shaped by that which is penalized or rewarded by the adopted tax system, and said tax system must generate sufficient revenue to pay society’s bills. America has not done this for a very long time, and THAT is “what has “brought us to this point”.

When we can not or do not define America’s needs, and prioritize AVAILABLE funds so as to properly meet said needs, there is NO LIMIT to the size of our government and NO LIMIT to the financial resources it will seek to control.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

No hunny it is

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

I have a major concern regarding the “American Financial State of Affairs”. In my opinion, the national economy and federal budget have reached the point of no return.

The Democrats take a position that mandatory entitlement programs are sacred and the Republicans take the position that there will be no increase in taxes. In my opinion they are both wrong if they want to solve the problem.

Information is from the CBO.

Expenditures

Security and Non-Security $1,289
Mandatory Programs $2,053
Net Interest $220

Total Expenditures $3,562

Income

Individual Income Taxes $1,123
Corporate Income Taxes $235
Payroll Taxes $851
Other Income $225

Total Income $2,435

Deficit/Shortfall $1,192

Congressional Leadership and the Media need to explain to the American Citizens the above fiscal problem and politicians need to understand that kicking the can down the street will not put our fiscal house in order.

I believe the reason politicians do not explain this problem to American Citizens, is because if they did, they wouldn’t get elected.

To solve our fiscal problem, every American citizen needs to share in the pain, that includes the 47% and the 53%, and 99% and the 1%. This will take politicians that have the heart and skills to convince voters to support a plan that gets our house in order. It has taken us a long time to develop this problem; it will take a long time to solve it.

Jack Stroobandt
jackstro@verizon.net

Posted by Jstroobandt | Report as abusive