Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Heart of the Matter

John Judis says, in The New Republic, that the only way Barack Obama can salvage his presidency and Democratic majorities in Congress is if voters believe the economy is improving when they go to the polls next year and in 2012.

Many people have said, in interviews and op–ed pieces, that the economy is, in fact, improving. But Judis has a caveat.

"[H]istory suggests that it is not enough for the economy to be headed in the right direction," he writes, "it has to be headed in the right direction in tangible ways that voters can see. Economists pronounced the recession of the early 1990s over in March 1991. But, when unemployment continued to rise through 1991 and most of 1992 and real wages stagnated, the public perceived the economy to still be declining — and it punished George H.W. Bush accordingly."

Consequently, Judis says that job creation is "Job One."

That's not news to me. I've been saying that for months.

Maybe it all needs to be boiled down to a memorable slogan, like "It's the Economy, Stupid." Of course, the problem with that one is that Bill Clinton used it to win the 1992 election, but he didn't really use it to govern — at least, not right away. Initially, his focus was on health care reform. Sound familiar?

Well, Judis has some encouraging words for Obama's supporters who, like their leader, believe (or appear to believe) that health care reform is the most pressing, the most urgent of all the problems on Obama's plate:

"Barack Obama looks like he will succeed where three Democratic presidents, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, so famously failed — by passing health care reform," Judis writes. "That is an achievement for which posterity will likely reward him."

Then the second shoe drops. "But it may not help him and his party avoid setbacks at the polls."

Judis doesn't say health care reform is not a worthy objective. But he questions the timing (which, of course, implies it has been given priority status).

"He is correct that Democrats may not have another chance to do so for decades — and, as the experience of Social Security shows, an imperfect program can be improved over time," Judis writes. "There is good reason to applaud the president's statement to Congress that 'we did not come here just to clean up crises, we came here to build a future.' But, if Obama doesn't clean up the crisis and get the economy moving again, his administration may not be around to enjoy the future he is building."

Many unemployed Americans may not be around to enjoy it, either. As Judis points out, the health care bill won't go into effect until 2013. The millions of Americans with no health insurance likely will remain uninsured in the interim. Those who have gone without medical attention likely will continue to go without it.

Being without work forces people to make unpleasant choices. Jobless Americans — and those who are worried about joining them — may well conclude that replacing their representation in Washington is yet another unpleasant choice that must be made.

Judis acknowledges that "the U.S. economy isn't going to morph overnight from its current woeful condition to a state of buoyant full employment." But he makes a critical point when he speaks of how voters perceive the situation. The perception that unemployment was on a downward trajectory was the key for both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and the trajectory of unemployment will be the key for Obama as well.

Is it too late? I don't know. But it isn't too late to try.

Is it?

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