Monday, October 01, 2012

The revenge of the Carters

By Richard K. Barry

Thanks for listening, thirty years later. 

We are getting to the point in this presidential campaign where it's hard to have new thoughts. One of the ideas that a lot of us have had for a long time is about the extent to which the outcome would depend on the shape of the economy. Many said that it's very hard for an incumbent president to survive with an economy as weak as we are experiencing.

Many others, me among them, have said that this is only true if people are willing to take the leap and blame the incumbent for the weak economy even though, in this case, the crisis he stepped into was, let's be kind, presided over by a president from the other party.

I know it's hard to fully explain to voters how George W. Bush "created" the Great Recession, but he had been in office for nearly 8 full years when it happened and the economy had been in pretty great shape the last time a Democrat was in office. One can talk about the Republican penchant for tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation, but the fact is most people look at things in far more simplistic ways. When a Republican was in the White House four years ago things were crashing and burning. And, sure, President Obama hasn't "fixed" things as fast as we might have liked, but is it fair to blame him for that?

Most voters don't really think in policy terms. They think in matter-of-fact human nature terms. Even though Mitt Romney has done everything possible to distance himself from George W. Bush, everyone gets that they are basically the same kind of animal. And, as for Obama, everyone understands what it means to have to clean up someone else's mess and maybe even what it feels like to get criticized for not doing it fast enough.

In other words, a bad economy is hard to overcome, but it was never that simple, much as Mitt Romney wanted it to be.

Another point, which is interesting given that Romney's people have tried to tie President Obama to Jimmy Carter, is that Carter was skewered for suggesting Americans might have to lower their expectations. True as that was, Reagan came along and said that Americans would never do that and he won.

Obama is too smart to even hint at what Carter said, but Americans are starting to come around to the message. They're getting it all by themselves. The world economy is in trouble. The kind of expansion the American economy saw in the twentieth century will never be seen again. And emerging economies will now demand at least a taste of the kind of affluence that had previously been allowed only to developed nations. They'll take our jobs and ask for less to do them.

In other words, Jimmy Carter is having his revenge and, as much as Mitt Romney is trying to be Ronald Reagan, Americans won't be fooled again.

On these points, here's Ross Douthat at The New York Times this weekend:

But Barack Obama would win if the election were held today, and probably by a relatively comfortable margin. My wintertime prediction, Mitt Romney's campaign strategy, the assumptions of Republicans and Democrats alike — all have been confounded by voters' refusal to lean the way the unemployment rate suggests they should.

Why is this? In part, it's the hangover from the Bush years, and the fact that Americans don't yet trust the Republican Party given how little the party seems to have learned and changed since 2008. In part, it's Romney himself, a deeply flawed candidate whose "47 percent" remarks look like the rare disastrous sound-bite that actually turns the polls against the candidate who uttered it.

But something deeper is going on as well. Remember that the economy is growing, however slowly, and most working-age Americans do have jobs. (A Bureau of Labor Statistics reassessment just found that there are now — finally — more Americans employed than when Barack Obama took office.) It turns out that dreadfully slow growth isn't nearly as politically damaging as decline, because voters can adapt to stagnation, and approach it as a kind of grim "new normal" rather than a disaster requiring an immediate response.

Isn't it rich that a Carter family member had a hand in getting the "47 percent" video released, just as Americans are coming to realize they understand we are going to have to live with a "new normal," like Jimmy Carter told them over 30 years ago.

The ballot question in this election may well be, "Who do you want in the White House as you adjust to the reality that life won't ever be as good as it once was?"

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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  • I would also add:

    While Republicans to this day try to rewrite history and claim "Reagan inherited a worse economy than Obama" (not even CLOSE to true), the recent Embassy attack has given the Right more "Obama is Carter" fodder as Election Day nears, but this time it isn't sticking.

    By Blogger Mugsy, at 8:28 AM  

  • Malaisaphobia

    Well, if Obama does lose (still quite possible), it will be because he was afraid to be anything but relentlessly optimistic all the time, and so missed the chance to build a narrative that voters could follow about this Lesser Depression.

    The point is well-taken that a president can be re-elected, and by big margins, despite a persistently weak economy. Roosevelt is the prime example. He managed that by levelling with the voters, being realistic about how bad things were, how there were no easy solutions. He always tempered the realism with optimism, the idea that there were things that could be done, and would be done if the voters re-elected him, but that full recovery would take a long time. But the optimism was tempered by the realism as well.

    But after Carter and his malaise speech, it became conventional wisdom that a president could never be anything but radiantly optimistic, always, about everything. Then we got into permanent campaign mode, and polling favorability and performance continuously. The fear of appearing anything but optimisitc about outcomes, on any time scale, was reinfirced by the immedate hit in the numbers presidents suffer when they are anything but upbeat with the voters.

    So Obama got a stimulus passed, but one that many economists thoiugth was too small, by a lot, not a little. Prudence, and a care for the long term, would have dictated that, at the time the stimulus did pass, what the president said about it should indeed radiate optimism and confidence that stimulus was the right path, but that optimism could and should have been tempered with realistic concerns about the size fo the stimulus, that if the package that had passed didn't work within a year, because this wasn't an ordinary recession he had inherited, it was the Lesser Depression, that we would need another.

    Sure, maybe any sort of tempering of a straight, relentlessly sunny optimism would have killed some of the juice for the president's numbers for that week in 2009. But onloy by constantly putting in such safety play reminders of just how big the problem was, could Obama have built the firm foundation of a narrative about the economy that would persuade the elctorate to leave himn at the long-term work of unwrecking what the Rs had wrecked.

    But the long-term wasn't considered because conventional wisdom since the malaise speech has dictated mindless, untempered optimism, and in the rush to win the week back in 2009, nobody thought through trade-offs and safety plays for the long-term, that it was important to win the week before e-day in 2012, not some random week in 2009. If they had weighed the costs and benefits, they would have seen that the costs would have been trivial, as a bit of realism is reassuring, that the people in charge are thinking things through, espeically if they are consstent in expressing the same real-world concerns. It shows they ahve a plan, aren't mindlessly optimistic. That's really reassuring when things in the real world do not go as relentlessly well as relentless optimism dictates they should.

    By Blogger Glen Tomkins, at 8:53 AM  

  • Richard K. Barry: Another point, which is interesting given that Romney's people have tried to tie President Obama to Jimmy Carter, is that Carter was skewered for suggesting Americans might have to lower their expectations. True as that was, Reagan came along and said that Americans would never do that and he won.

    Life is never easy, though politicians sometimes pretend it is. The growth of the post-WWII period wasn't an accident, but the result of a huge amount of sacrifice and effort over a long period of time.

    There is no reason why Americans can't continue to prosper. They have huge advantages in the global economy, including a well-educated, innovative and motivated workforce. Indeed, American can help lead the world. However, as Jimmy Carter explained, it will take continuing sacrifice and effort.

    By Blogger Zachriel, at 11:32 AM  

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