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It's the Economy, Stupid

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During Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, a sign in Clinton's campaign headquarters reminded the candidate "the economy, stupid." The same sign would work for the Democrats' 2008 presidential candidate. After Iraq and healthcare, Americans see the economy as the number three problem facing the United States. In fact, they rate economic problems in the aggregate almost as highly as they do Iraq.

Over the course of the Bush Administration, Americans have become increasingly pessimistic about the economy. in the latest Gallup poll 69 percent of respondents described current economic conditions as fair or poor. (In January 2001, only 33 percent were pessimistic.) In the same poll 71 percent saw economic conditions "getting worse."

The Gallup Poll lists a number of reasons why Americans are pessimistic about the economy. The top ten are healthcare, "lack of money/low wages," housing costs, energy costs, debt, "retirement savings," "college expenses," cost of living, taxes, and unemployment. The Gallup researchers asked respondents what should be to solve these problems: "Americans say maintaining the availability of good jobs is the No. 1 thing they would recommend to improve the economy." That's an important finding because Republicans don't talk about creating good jobs, but rather the necessity to cut taxes.

Perspectives on President Bush's handling of the economy differ by political affiliation: "Among Republicans, 69% approve of the way Bush is handling the economy... Among Democrats, 84% disapprove... Among independents, 61% disapprove."

Whether Americans view the U.S. economy as getting better or worse depends upon their position in the economic pecking order. If the respondent is at or near the top, things are getting better. The latest reports indicate that America's rich are getting richer. In 2006 the average CEO was paid $14.78 million. However, during this same period the minimum wage was $5.15 per hour, which meant the average CEO made more in 90 minutes than the minimum wage worker made in a year. Moreover, since 2000 the number of severely poor has grown more than any other segment of the population - to 16 million people. For most Americans things are getting worse.

When reporters ask the average American household earning $48,021 per year about the economy, they hear comments such as: "We're working harder but not getting ahead;" "There's no safety net; if one of us gets sick or laid off, we'll lose everything." "We're afraid our kids won't have as good as a life as we've had."

Nonetheless, GOP Presidential hopefuls don't say much about the economy or jobs, except to lobby for more tax cuts. Rudy Giuliani "would lower taxes, make permanent President Bush's tax cuts and eliminate inheritance taxes." The former Mayor of New York believes in supply-side economics and, therefore, expects tax cuts to generate jobs. Senator John McCain has a similar position: no new taxes and pray the economy will take care of jobs. Former Senator Fred Thompson and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney echo these sentiments.

In contrast, the Democratic Presidential hopefuls address the need for good jobs. Senator Hillary Clinton said, "Let's make sure the people who work hard every day can actually support their families and save for the future." Senator Barack Obama stated, "It's time to turn the page for all those Americans who want nothing more than to have a job that can pay the bills and raise a family... Let's put the jobless back to work in transitional jobs that can give them a paycheck and a sense of pride. Let's help our workers advance with job training and lifelong education." And former Senator John Edwards observed, "Some willing workers cannot find jobs without skills, experience, or references. We know that innovative programs can help these workers. And we know--because we have seen it work--that the government can create short-term jobs to serve as stepping-stones..."

There's an obvious difference between the Republican and Democratic approaches to job creation: the GOP presidential hopefuls trust an unencumbered economy to do it, while the Democratic contenders want some sort of jobs program. These different perspectives may be due to basic philosophy: Republicans don't believe in government programs and Democrats do. However, some observers offer a more troubling explanation.

A recent book by Jonathan Chait, The Big Con, argues the hard core of the Republican Party believes in plutocracy rather than democracy. Chait contends the driving purpose of the GOP is to service business interests and the rich. Therefore, Republicans lobby for tax cuts because those disproportionately benefit the rich and powerful. They oppose jobs programs because they're against government programs, in principle, and their wealthy constituents don't want to pay for them. Chait says the GOP leadership has a narrow, selfish view of the economy: it should benefit the Republican elite.

Like Iraq and healthcare, there are stark differences in Democratic and Republican economic philosophy. So clear that most independent voters understand these differences. That's a good omen for the Democrats so long as they remember, "It's the economy, stupid."

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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