Today’s disappointing jobs numbers suggest that the recovery is sputtering. Unemployment remains unacceptably high, a human tragedy afflicting untold numbers of Americans. Right now we’re in the midst of a presidential election that’s all about how to pull us out of this crisis. For some unfathomable reason, this led Ezra Klein to ask which candidate’s plans would do a better job of accomplishing this:
In his news conference, Romney emphasized four ideas in his plan: expanding domestic energy production, working out trade agreements with Latin America, cracking down on China and cutting the corporate tax rate. These are all reasonable ideas. But working out trade agreements takes a long time. Getting the Keystone oil pipeline up and running takes a long time. Rewriting and implementing a new corporate tax code takes a long time. Changing China’s policies takes a long time. It’s difficult to see how any of these ideas creates a substantial number of jobs quickly.
Obama also tends to emphasize four parts of his plan: increasing infrastructure investment, hiring more state and local workers, doubling the size of the payroll tax cut and adding a new set of tax cuts for small businesses and companies that hire new employees. Two of those policies imply directly hiring hundreds of thousands of workers. The other two move money into the economy immediately. It’s easier to see how these policies lead to more jobs and demand in the short term.
As it happens, economists I spoke to recently agreed with this. They said Romney’s plans would do little to fix the short term crisis, and that his emphasis on austerity could make the crisis worse.
But in an odd quirk of our discourse, the bad jobs numbers are likely to make this assessment less relevant, rather than more.
If the recovery stalls out, it becomes far easier for Romney to make the election all about Obama, and paradoxically, it encourages Romney to be more vague about what he’d do to solve the problem. The political conversation focuses more on this election as a referendum on Obama — because history teaches us that this is how swing voters will see things in a tanking economy — and less on the choice voters face between two prescriptions for fixing it. It’s a self-reinforcing dynamic.
Indeed, to respond to bad jobs numbers by asking whose plan would actually fix things has an almost quaint or naive quality. Likewise, when Steve Benen reminds us that experts think things might not be so bad today if Republicans in Congress hadn’t blocked major portions of Obama’s American Jobs Act, such an observation is likely to be seen by many political observers as beside the point entirely.
Look at it this way. Yesterday, two major voices within the GOP — the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Bill Kristol — both called on Romney to be more specific about his plans and vision for the economy. If the bad jobs numbers continue, and it looks more likely that Romney can win by keeping the focus only on Obama, do you really imagine that such voices will continue demanding that Romney offer more detail about his agenda? Don’t bet on it.
Republicans will respond that Obama had his shot to fix the economy, and that the stimulus failed. The stimulus helped pull us out of recession, but there’s no denying the pace of the recovery has been disappointing. However, whatever the verdict on Obama’s stimulus, it remains a fact that Obama has proposed a second set of policies to fix the short term crisis that Republicans have mostly blocked. This election is — or should be — a choice between that set of policies and the alternatives Romney has proposed, such as they are. You’d think that the ailing recovery would focus the conversation more intensely on this choice, rather than less. But that just isn’t how our discourse works.