Life at ground level



The Sunday print column, tweaked and updated:


Pass the word, the great recession is over.

What, you haven't heard? Notwithstanding last Friday's dismal report on the latest job losses, various economic gurus are talking about a strong third-quarter rebound, the Dow continues its sluggish upward creep toward 10,000, and a former Reagan economic whiz named Michael Muzza declares that America has already commenced a "moderately vigorous recovery."

But, in terms of President Obama's political health, and the Democrats' prospects for success in the 2010 congressional races, upbeat macroeconomic statistics really don't mean squat. Voters won't believe that the economy has truly begun to rebound until they can see tangible evidence with their own eyes.

It won't be enough for the Democrats to argue that conditions would have been worse if not for the $787-billion economic stimulus package; lots of economists happen to support that argument, but the average voter lives at ground level. For most people, the recovery won't seem real until the vacant corner store has a new occupant and a "hiring now" sign on the glass; until the jobless spouse in the den is going out the door every morning with a new work bag; until it's a hassle once again to find a parking spot at the mall; until the price tag for fixing the porch seems doable, and the contractor who does the work is again swamped with other bids.

Until such time as these things happen, Obama and the Democrats will be treading on thin ice in the long march to the '10 elections. This might be arguably unfair - the economy went bad for a host of well-known reasons, and presidents are often at the mercy of economic trends beyond their control - but that's politics. Inevitably, the party in charge is held accountable when times are tough...or, more importantly, when times are perceived as tough, no matter what the graphs look like. As Tom Cole, a GOP congressman and strategist told the press the other day, "It is the Democrats' turn to go through the historical meat grinder."

Presidential approval ratings tend to rise or fall in accordance with the jobless rate. Obama's have been no different; since last January, the drop in his thumbs-up rating has closely tracked the rise in the jobless rate. If the current jobless rate persists well into 2010 - indeed, the Congressional Budget Office is predicting that next year's rate will average 10.2 percent, and one top economists sees the rate peaking at 10.5 percent next June - Obama may be hard pressed to post decent numbers of his own.

The ongoing health care reform debate is obviously crucial to the president's long-term political standing; if reform dies this year, the Democrats will pay a price at the ballot box next year, because the party's base will be too angry to vote. But ultimately, the pocketbook issue matters more; as Bill Clinton's team famously said back in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid."

Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm, has just released a snapshot of
the current national mood: Sixty-one percent of Americans say they are close to somebody whose hours or wages has been cut; 57 percent are close to someone who has been laid off; 44 percent of households have suffered either a layoff or a cutback in hours/wages. Most importantly, 85 percent of Americans say we're still in recession.

And most people may hew to that belief well into the '10 campaign season. Obama and the Democrats, seeking to defend their hefty congressional majorities, will argue that the key economic indicators are trending upward - and that may well be true. But, among voters, there is typically a time lag between reality and perception.

There is no more vivid example than the misfortunes that befell the first President Bush back in 1992. Many of you may recall that we suffered a bad recession during Bush's term, notably in 1990. The top wonks decreed in March 1991 that the recession was officially over, and kept saying so all year long. In macro terms, they were probably right. But at street level, they were perceived as wrong - because the stores stayed empty and the jobless rate continued to rise.

Bush's first stop on his ill-fated '92 re-election trail was the New Hampshire primary. But nobody there believed the recession was over. I covered that primary; while doing so, I rode around with Republican voters in the town of Salem. The mini-malls were barren, except for the signs: For Sale, For Lease, For Rent. To my hosts, this was all tangible stuff; they didn't care what the wonks said. 

I rode at one point with a nice young couple, the Bensons. Their kids - three-year-old Michael and two-year-old Brian - had picked up the vibe. I took notes. Michael told me, "I don't buh-weeve this. There's nothing in the stores. I just hate when they do that." And Brian chimed in, "Me too hate it."

The next day, a grown-up Republican named Al Sack (who had been sacked five months earlier, and hadn't worked since), told me that he planned to vote against Bush because of the recession. In his words, "I don't give a rat's damn who's to blame, he's the president."

It may be no different for Obama and the Democrats, barring any street-level evidence during the next 13 months. (Already, the Republican message is, "Where are the jobs?") There certainly won't be any tangible progress on the health care front, because even if historic reforms are enacted, the key provisions aren't slated to kick in until 2013 - a fact that has been seriously underreported). So the big question, between now and November '10, is whether Obama can successfully plead for patience on the economy until a recovery feels tangible and perceptions accordingly change.

One potential Democratic upside is that they won't cough up control of the House next year unless they suffer a net loss of 40 seats; even if they're still saddled with a perceived recession, it's hard to envision that scenario. They could easily lose two dozen seats (so say the political forecasters), and that makes sense, historically speaking. Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost 26 seats in November 1982, when the jobless rate was nearly 11 percent. (Indeed, tracking all the midterm elections since World War II, the party that controls the White House has lost an average of 24 House seats.) But the problem for Obama, in our hyper-polarized era, is that even a Reagan-style loss would be spun by his foes as a massive repudiation.

Well, he asked for this burden. Not long ago, he told a Michigan audience, "I love these folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, 'Well, this is Obama's economy.' That's fine. Give it to me."

To which I say, be careful what you wish for.


With respect to the outbreak of triumphalist cheering in right-wing circles last week, when the news broke that America had lost its bid to host the 2016 Olympics:

Granted, we know by now that conservatives have conditioned itself to hate anything that Obama is for...but seriously, do conservatives truly believe that it's politically wise to behave as if they are rooting against America?