As everyone knows — except certain politicians in both parties in Washington — the greatest problem facing America is an undernourished economy that just can't create enough jobs to get unemployment below that economically key 7 percent threshold. In September, the economy created only 148,000 new jobs, a dismal statistic five years after the start of the Great Recession.
But, other than sporadically, the jobs crisis is not an issue that animates Washington. Instead, national politics revolves around scorched-earth wars over federal spending and steel-cage struggles over the rollout of Obamacare. From the sidelines, pundits wail over the self-destructive polarization in Washington and the failure of the political system to deal with questions like immigration and global warming.
Next week, as Senate and House negotiators begin their first serious long-term budget negotiations in four years, Washington will be filled with excited talk about a grand bargain to reduce the deficit. Economic growth, the engine of job creation, will be discussed only in passing amid the predictable squabbles over tax increases and entitlement cuts.
Of course, there is a connection between the deficit and the overall health of the economy. But that causal nexus can be exaggerated. In fact, robust economic growth will do far more to reduce the deficit than green-eyeshade budget austerity. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a first-term Barack Obama adviser, recently concluded that “an increase in just 0.2 percent in annual growth would entirely eliminate the projected long-term budget gap.”
If only the politicians would listen to the polls. Yes, you read that right. What is happening in Washington symbolizes a dangerous disconnect between the priorities of the voters and those of their elected leaders.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found that 75 percent of all Americans consider the economy to be in “not so good” or “poor” condition. The 2 percent in the poll who pronounce the economy to be in “excellent” shape presumably work on Wall Street.
The voters get it. “I have done a lot of focus groups in the last few years,” says Republican strategist David Winston, who advises the House and Senate GOP leadership. “And there’s one number that people know — and that’s the unemployment rate. And they’re sophisticated about it. They know that the unemployment rate understates things because of people leaving the workforce.”
Every poll tells the same story about what animates voters. A mid-September CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted before the government shutdown, found that 34 percent of Americans call the economy and jobs “the most important problem facing this country today.” In contrast, only 8 percent highlighted health care and a paltry 6 percent singled out the budget deficit and the national debt.
This same jobs-first message is embedded in private polls conducted for politicians in both parties. “Voters are much more concerned with creating jobs and growing the economy than they are with the budget deficit, though they do care about the deficit,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, whose clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
It wasn’t too long ago that both parties embraced the gospel of economic expansion rather than budget austerity.
Supply-side economics, the doctrine behind Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, reflected the belief that growth was much more important than short-term budgetary arithmetic. In a sense, today’s tea party Republicans are closer in spirit to George H.W. Bush (who shouted “voodoo economics” when he challenged the Gipper in the 1980 primaries) than they are to their hero Reagan.
Democrats have a far longer history of believing that full employment should be a major goal of the federal government going back to FDR and the New Deal. John Kennedy’s mantra in the 1960 campaign was, “Let’s get this country moving again.” Things changed only when Bill Clinton, basking in the prosperity of his second term, embraced a balanced budget partly as a way to eliminate GOP attacks on profligate Democrats.
In fact, since the late 1990s, posturing over the budget deficit has dominated Washington. As Winston explains, “Democrats used the deficit to stop Republican tax cuts, and Republicans used it to stop Democratic spending increases. But what about the economy?” Mellman calls this political dance “the revenge of the budget nerds.”
But why is political Washington so deaf to the cries of suffering caused by the stagnant economy? An entire generation is being lost as high unemployment becomes the national norm and millions of Americans scramble from one unfulfilling part-time job to another. This is the tragedy of our decade — and our political leaders from the White House to the tea party zealots in Congress have, for the most part, stopped talking about it.
There is no simple explanation for Washington’s failure to address economic growth.
Part of it is the result of the partisan stalemate as Obama knows that his proposals to stimulate the economy will never get through the Republican House so he gives them little more than lip service. Few Americans, I suspect, remember Obama’s “ Fix-It-First program” and his Partnership to Rebuild America that were highlighted in his 2013 State of the Union address. In similar fashion, Republicans know that Obama would veto any major new tax-cut legislation even if somehow it got through the Democratic Senate.
Another major factor — and let’s be blunt about it — is the stranglehold that the wealthy (and their nervous fears that inflation will erode their investments) have over the economic policies of both parties.
Rich Republicans are passionate in their disdain for any form of government stimulus from government spending to the expansionary efforts of the Federal Reserve. Wall Street Democrats are smitten with centrist deficit-reduction plans, like the one proposed by former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson and former Democratic White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles. Simpson-Bowles would both curb entitlements like Medicare and increase taxes. But it is hard to imagine any unemployed American ever racing home to shout, “I’m going to get a new job because Congress passed Simpson-Bowles.”
What America needs is a grand bargain over jobs, not the deficit. If only Obama and the Republican leaders of Congress could negotiate over questions like, “If I gave you these regulatory changes to spur hiring by business, would you accept a stimulus plan to repair highways and bridges?” If only both sides could put aside their stale talking points about taxing the rich and defunding Obamacare — and instead ask, “What could we agree on to create jobs?”
Sure, it seems like a ludicrous fantasy. It’s as silly as politicians listening to the voters. And it is a reason why only 23 percent of Americans (in the ABC-Washington Post poll) are satisfied “with the way this country’s political system is working.”