Two stories out Friday demonstrate the complicated economic truth of our era — one that a Democratic candidate should be able to ride to the White House, if they can convince the public that there’s a path out of the long-term problems we face.
First, the latest jobs report shows that the economy added a healthy 224,000 jobs in June, though wage growth was weaker than it ought to be this late in a recovery and with unemployment under 4 percent. Naturally, this led to a series of triumphal tweets from President Trump, who regularly asserts that never in the history of America has the economy been better.
Then there’s this article by Heather Long of The Post:
Sommer Johnson thought everything was finally coming together for her last year. She was engaged, working full time and doing well in online college classes when her fiance’s mother died a week before their wedding day — triggering a series of large and unexpected expenses that left her struggling to pay her bills and brought her to the verge of bankruptcy.
“I keep hearing this is one of the best economies we’ve ever had and unemployment is down, especially among African Americans, which I am,” said Johnson, 39, who lives in Douglasville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. “I’m looking around going, ‘Where is this boom?’ From where I sit, this doesn’t look like the best economy ever.” …
The stock market is at record levels, with the Dow Jones industrial average closing at a new high Wednesday ahead of the July 4 holiday, and President Trump has made the economy’s strong performance a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.
But this expansion has been weaker and its benefits distributed far more unevenly than in previous growth cycles, leaving many Americans in a vulnerable position.
Both these things are true at the same time. A decade into the recovery that began after the Great Recession bottomed out, the economy is excellent in many ways. It’s also terrible in many ways.
Another vivid illustration: According to a recent report from the Federal Reserve, 4 in 10 Americans say that if they faced a sudden expense of $400, they’d have to borrow the money or sell something to pay it, or they just wouldn’t be able to manage it at all. When a simple car repair represents that kind of financial body blow for so many of us, this is not the greatest economy in history.
This fundamental sickness in the U.S. economy predated Trump’s presidency; you can’t just blame it on him. Having said that, he has done everything in his power to make it worse, not just by larding benefits on the wealthy and corporations but by finding ways to make the lives of those who are struggling more difficult.
He has encouraged states to kick people off Medicaid. He has proposed cutting food stamps for people who struggle to feed their families. His administration has eviscerated the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, making sure that payday lenders and other businesses that make money by preying on the vulnerable can do so with as little government oversight as possible. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has reversed regulations meant to keep for-profit colleges from leaving students with mountains of debt and useless degrees. He has waged a war on collective bargaining.
In short, Trump has sought to make the economy more cruel and unforgiving for everyone except those at the top, making everyone’s existence more tenuous even if things are going well for them right now.
The key divide between the parties — and one Democrats need to bring to the fore — is their views on whether this is how things have to be, that even when we’re at nearly full employment and almost anyone can find some kind of job, so many millions of Americans exist in a place where financial catastrophe is a single missed paycheck away.
One way to do it, which Democrats haven’t done sufficiently up until now, is to describe the different kind of economic future they’d like to create. It’s one where certain kinds of worries simply don’t exist anymore. No one would live in fear that they couldn’t manage their deductibles or co-pays if they had an illness or an accident, let alone that they’d lose their health coverage. Child care would be manageable. Every job would pay a minimum on which you could at least afford to live. If you or your kids wanted to go to college, it wouldn’t saddle you with a lifetime of debt. When you had a child or needed to care for a sick loved one, you’d get some paid time off.
Republicans act as though that picture is some kind of preposterous fantasy, a vision of a world that is beyond the capacity of human ingenuity to create. But it exists in pretty much every other industrialized democracy. The fact that our economy is organized so differently was a choice, and we can make a different one.
Furthermore, considering that alternate future doesn’t just mean weaving a positive, hopeful message. It also means telling a story with villains people can and should get mad at, whether it’s Wall Street banks or corporate lobbyists or the entire Republican Party.
And as Democrats spend so much time and energy wondering what particular manner of cultural pandering might enable them to win over a few of those mythologized blue-collar white voters, this is the real answer: Tell them a story about the economy that resonates with what they see in their own lives and their communities, and offer them something better. When Trump’s message is that this is as good as things can possibly be, it just might work.