As Ken Burns’s superb documentary on the Roosevelts reminded us, “Happy Days Are Here Again” is one of the most evocative anthems in the history of the Democratic Party. You have to ask: Why aren’t the Democrats, and the country, singing it loudly now?
A party controlling the White House could not ask for much more from economic numbers than the Democrats got in Friday’s jobs report, issued a month and a day before the midterm elections. Unemployment fell to 5.9 percent, the lowest it has been since July 2008. The nation added 248,000 jobs, more than the forecasters had projected. What’s not to like?
President Obama, for one, is clearly frustrated that having inherited an economy that was at death’s door, he is getting remarkably little credit for getting it back on its feet.
“As Americans, we can and should be proud of the progress that our country has made over these past six years,” Obama said in a speech at Northwestern University the day before the figures were released. “Right now, there are more job openings than at any time since 2001. All told, the United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined.”
And lest anyone miss the import of what he just said, the president added: “I want you to think about that.”
He would also like voters to think about that before they cast their ballots. And here is the conundrum of the 2014 campaign. In 2010, House Speaker John Boehner’s battle cry that helped Republicans win their landslide was, “Where are the jobs?” Obama and the Democrats are now in a position to reply: “Here are the jobs!”
But Boehner isn’t asking that question anymore.
Why doesn’t this good news matter more to the electorate? Obama and Democrats trying to survive this fall face two problems in getting voters to sing a joyous song.
The first is that the very improvement in the economy means that it is a less central concern to voters than it was when Obama took office — or in 2010. The Gallup Poll’s numbers are striking: In February 2009, 86 percent of Americans listed an economic issue as their central concern; in October 2010, on the eve of the last midterms, 69 percent did. But in the most recent Gallup survey, the proportion listing an economic issue was down to 41 percent. Better times mean different worries.
Yet voters who are still concerned about the economy tend to be focused not on its successes but on what it is failing to do for them. That’s the Democrats’ other problem. The unemployment rate is way down, but it’s still not low enough to create rapid and widespread wage growth. Many of the forces that have been driving up inequality since the 1980s are still with us.
This tension is far more difficult for Democrats to deal with than it would be for Republicans, were they presiding over exactly the same recovery. Democrats, going back to those happy Roosevelt days, have made their living as the party that lifts up the many and not just the privileged few. Republicans have traditionally said that growth is everything and if the rich get richer, their success will eventually work its way down to everyone else.
Democrats can’t (and shouldn’t) echo conservative bromides. They are right to point to all that still needs to be done to end income stagnation in the middle class and among the poor. In his Northwestern speech, Obama advanced his proposals on education, job training, college loans, a minimum wage increase, infrastructure investment, equal pay and work-family balance. All would help matters, if only they could get by Republicans in Congress.
But when progressives raise the problem of inequality, their conservative opponents turn around and blame that on Obama, too. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which practically invented trickle-down economics, headlined an editorial on Friday “The President of Inequality.” The paper’s sudden solicitude for the downtrodden was rather jarring. Imagine an editorial in the Vatican’s newspaper extolling the virtues of atheism.
There is still a month to go before Election Day, enough time to develop a sustained argument that highlights both how much better the economy is and how much we still have to do to spread prosperity more widely. It’s more challenging than bragging, but it has the virtue of making clear that if today’s obstruction had been the rule in 2009, we’d still be in the soup.
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