It’s the economy, stupid,” was a slogan popularized by supporters of Bill Clinton. Although the initial intent was to remind campaign workers to focus on one of Clinton’s central planks, it later served to suggest that climbing out of a recession should be more important to voters than the president’s sex life.
Twenty years later, it is still the economy. The stock market slumped through May and has continued its skid into June, with no reason to believe an upturn is in sight. Recovery has slowed, if not stalled, and national pundits are hinting that will hurt the president and benefit the challenger, as a poor economy always does. When voters are hurting, they blame incumbents.
The problem is that any president – George H.W. Bush or Clinton, Obama or Mitt Romney – is limited in his power to solve the problem.
Some of the blame can be laid upon Congress, where actual progress seems secondary to political gain. Politicians too often set aside the interests of the American people when a public benefit might also create a win for political opponents.
But Congress, too, is limited. Lawmakers must have a broader and longer view of economic improvement than that of individuals who judge the government’s performance based on their own experiences. As an extreme example, printing more money might seem like a great idea to those who would end up with handfuls of it, but the overall result would be disastrous. More to the point, bailing out one economic sector at the expense of another has proven only to shift the problem around.
Right now, Europe is a heavy drag on the U.S. economy, and the mess is so large that even massive infusions of aid – which the United States presumably would borrow from China – will not set the European Union back on solid economic ground. Austerity has not solved the problem, because less spending translates into fewer jobs. That lack of demand dampens the sales of U.S. goods and services abroad.
What all that means is that the president, whoever he is, cannot lift the nation’s economy on his own. The office holds a great deal of influence over diplomatic relationships, trade policies and the balance between growth and other considerations, including the environment, but in the tradeoffs involved in all those decisions, jobs cannot always come out on top.
Declaring war on China, which would kick off an immediate economic boom, still is not a good idea.
So choosing a president based on the respective candidates’ promises of job growth is risky business. Saying a plan will work does not make it so, as voters rediscover after every election. Get the details. Analyze for yourself which sectors would benefit. One of the biggest lessons from the recent recession and recovery is that some bailouts trickle down fairly effectively – the auto industry is an example – and others do not. While top bankers in institutions “too big to fail” still command big bonuses, many jobless workers have seen the economy change in ways that leave them watching the recovery from the outside.
Right now Americans are telling Obama that the economy is still their big issue – not war and foreign policy, not health care, not education, although all those are intertwined. Make it better or take a hike, they are saying, and no doubt he wishes he could pull that miracle out of his hat.
He cannot. Obama does not have a magic wand and neither does Mitt Romney. Voters can blame the government all they want, and for some good reasons, but they should not pin their hopes, naively, on a simple solution.