That’s the simple way to look at it, and it’s not wrong. But there’s another layer to the state of the country’s economy that could make things more complicated for both parties. It has to do with the difference between the two numbers that get the most attention — job creation and GDP growth — and the rest of how Americans experience their economic and working lives.
If you listen to the way President Obama talks about the economy these days, you’ll notice that he always says both that things are going well and that “we have more work to do.” It’s a way to assure people that he understands that they don’t feel secure and that many may not have gotten back to where they were before the Great Recession. On the other side, for a long time Republicans would say, “Where are the jobs, Mr. President?” But they can’t say that anymore, nor can they complain about growth being weak.
The economic debate of 2016 will start in about a year from now. While there could certainly be a downturn between now and then, let’s assume for the moment that the momentum continues. How could Republicans make a case that although growth and job creation are strong, all is still not well? Even if that’s what Americans feel, it would be a difficult case for Republicans to make, because those top-line figures are what they generally point to when they discuss the economy. What else can they build their case on? They aren’t going to talk about the stock market or corporate profits, not only because those have both performed spectacularly during the Obama presidency, but because they know that ordinary people don’t much care.
And they aren’t going to talk about the things that really make people worried. The most important fact of the American economy in the past few decades may be its failure to produce rising wages, but that’s not something Republicans are particularly concerned with. Their economic focus is usually on business owners — the taxes they pay, the regulations they have to abide by, and so on. Even if you believe that helping those owners is the best way to help the people who work for them, you’re going to have a hard time finding Republicans who want to talk about something like wage stagnation.
And the arguments Republicans always make against Democratic proposals aimed directly at workers, like increasing the minimum wage or expanding health coverage, are that the proposals will cost jobs and hinder growth. So they can’t turn around and say, “OK, so growth and job creation may look good, but the real problem is what people earn and how they’re treated on the job.” That’s just not in the Republican DNA.
If there’s an accompanying problem for Democrats, it’s that voters could look at the Obama years and say that yes, it’s now a lot easier to find a job, but the jobs don’t pay what they should or offer the same security and dignity they used to. The American economy is a much crueler place than it once was, and two terms of a Democratic administration haven’t done enough to reverse that evolution.
That could be a genuinely biting critique. But fortunately for Hillary Clinton (or whoever the 2016 Democratic nominee is), Republicans are the last ones who are going to make it.