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‘Meh’ Economy Muddies Mid-Term Election Picture

October 3rd, 2014

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It’s the “meh” economy, stupid. 2014 is not a boom year or a bust year. It’s just “meh.”

That’s why President Obama chose his words carefully when he talked about the economy in his CBS 60 Minutes interview last week. “Ronald Reagan used to ask the question, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ In this case, are you better off than you were six [years ago]?” the president said. “The answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office.”

Notice that Obama said “the country” is better off. He didn’t say “You’re better off.”

He is right. “The country” is clearly better off. The official unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent, the lowest level since July 2008, before the Great Recession. Productivity is rising. The economic growth rate for the second quarter was a robust 4.6 percent. And with tax revenues increasing, the federal budget deficit is lower.

“The United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan and every other advanced economy combined,” Obama said at Northwestern University Thursday. That’s true. But it won’t do him much good politically. How many American voters will say, “We’re doing better than the Japanese! Woo-hoo!”

President Obama didn’t dare say, “You’ve never had it so good,” because he would have been laughed off the stage. What he did say was, “Our broader economy in the aggregate has come a long way, but the gains of recovery aren’t yet broadly shared.”

That’s also true. Only the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans have seen solid gains in income. The vast majority have not experienced any improvement, and many are facing wage stagnation and declining incomes. President Obama’s argument is that he has policies to help lower-income workers, but congressional Republicans have stubbornly blocked them: a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, more infrastructure spending. Obama said in his speech that, while he himself is not running this year, “these policies are on the ballot—every single one of them.”

Since 1974, polltakers have been asking Americans, “How well do you think things are going in the country today?” It’s a pretty good indicator of how people see the economy—and how it affects their vote.

When the number who say things are going well is more than 60 percent, it’s a boom year. Incumbents do well at the polls. For instance:

  • 1984, when Reagan declared “Morning in America” and got re-elected (74 percent said things were going well)
  • 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected as “Reagan’s third term” (70 percent)
  • 1996, when Clinton won a second term (67 percent)
  • 2000, when Vice President Al Gore got 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush but didn’t quite make it in the electoral college (79 percent)

When the number who say things are going well dips below 40 percent, it’s a bust year. Incumbents do poorly. Like:

  • 1980, when Jimmy Carter got fired (32 percent said things were going well)
  • 1992, when the first President Bush was laid off (35 percent)
  • 2008, the financial crisis (16 percent, the lowest figure ever)

How many Americans people think things are going well in the country now? Answer: 50 percent, according to a CNN poll. That’s a lot better than 2008, when Obama was elected. It’s even better than 2012, when Obama got re-elected (40 percent). But it’s not exactly a boom. Fifty percent is “meh.”

The “meh” economy is dampening enthusiasm for Democrats among the party’s core constituencies: low-income Americans, minorities, young people and single women. If Democrats are unenthusiastic, Republicans are in a rage. They can’t wait to vote because Obama’s policies have been far more liberal than they can tolerate. Obamacare, for instance, is not a top issue to most voters this year, as it was in 2010. But it is at the core of seething resentment among Republicans.

Democratic candidates are still competitive in many states because they are running hard on social issues, especially women’s rights. The emergence of the New America—young people, educated professionals, single and working women, gays, Latinos and voters with no religious affiliation—has enabled Democrats to use social issues to bludgeon their Republican opponents, just as Republicans used to do to Democrats. Those issues may rally Democrats the same way hatred of President Obama rallies Republicans.

Meanwhile Republican candidates are trying to replicate their surprise victory in the 2002 midterms, when terrorism was at the top of the agenda. Once again, we are hearing charges that Democrats are “soft on terrorism.”

In a “meh” economy, candidates rely on other issues to drive the vote. To quote the wisdom of the late Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It just goes to show you, it’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

This piece was originally published via The Huffington Post.

No One Likes a Frontrunner

August 21st, 2014

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“No one likes a frontrunner, especially Democrats” a grassroots activist at Netroots Nation told Politico. That’s certainly true. Remember John Glenn in 1984? Howard Dean in 2004? Hillary Clinton in 2008?

It’s Republicans who have a tradition of nominating whoever is next in line. Every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater had run for President or vice president before. With one exception–George W. Bush. But his name was Bush, so he got a pass. Democrats have a tradition of plucking candidates out of obscurity: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

If Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, she may defy the Democratic tradition. She is the prohibitive frontrunner, at least in the polls. No one else comes close. But will she really coast to the nomination? It looks more and more likely that Clinton will be seriously challenged from the left, by a candidate TBD.

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Obama’s Impossible Choices on Iraq

June 16th, 2014

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Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

But what were U.S. troops doing in Iraq four years later if not nation-building?

The U.S. military can do many things supremely well. They are all military things — like fighting wars, repelling invasions and providing security. But nation-building — the task that devolved upon them in both Iraq and Afghanistan — is political, not military. And politics is not something the military can do very well. Nor should anyone expect it to.

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Elites focus on inequality; real people just want growth

May 6th, 2014

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The economic debate is now sharply focused on the issue of income inequality. That may not be the debate Democrats want to have, however. It’s negative and divisive. Democrats would be better off talking about growth — a hopeful and unifying agenda.

Democrats believe income inequality is a populist cause. But it may be less of a populist issue than an issue promoted by the cultural elite: well-educated professionals who are economically comfortable but not rich. There’s new evidence that ordinary voters care more about growth.

Growth and inequality are not separate issues. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote, “Politicians typically talk about rising inequality and the sluggish recovery as separate phenomena when they are in fact intertwined.  Inequality restrains and holds back our economic growth

The question is whether Democrats want to talk about punitive and confiscatory policies aimed at curbing the power of the wealthy and special interests or an agenda aimed at growing the economy for everyone.

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An Election Democrats Can Win

April 11th, 2014

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Obamacare versus Ryanomics. That’s the battle line for 2014. It’s also a battle Democrats can win.

Why? Because most Americans are pragmatists. Pragmatists believe that whatever works is right. Ideologues believe that if something is wrong, it can’t possibly work — even if it does work. That’s the Republican view of Obamacare: It’s wrong, so it can’t possibly work.

But it now looks like Obamacare may work. More than 7 million people signed up for health insurance by the March 31 deadline, meeting the Obama administration’s original goal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “The Affordable Care Act, whether my Republican friends want to admit it or not, is working.”

Republicans admit nothing. “Even though the Democrats are trying to take some victory lap, it’s very short term,” Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) told the New York Times. “The bad news continues. The hits keep coming.”

Do they? The Affordable Care Act continues to be unpopular, though some polls show a slight uptick in public support. “House Republicans will continue to work to repeal this law,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised last week. (They have already voted to repeal all or parts of the law 55 times.) The Republican view is simple: It’s wrong, therefore it can’t possibly work.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to repeal a law that gives health insurance to so many Americans. A recent Rand study estimates that 9.3 million American adults were added to the insurance rolls as of March, a figure that includes those who signed up in the new marketplace, received new employer coverage or enrolled in Medicaid. They are all being helped by Obamacare.

Still, it’s too early to conclude that the law will work. There are many challenges coming. The employer mandate goes into effect next year, and some employers may use the requirement to cover their employees’ health insurance as a pretext to reduce workers’ hours and wages.

Moreover, insurers will announce new premiums for 2015 this fall. If the risk pools do not include enough young and healthy people, premiums could skyrocket.  That would set off a backlash among those currently insured — just in time for the midterm elections.

In the public’s view, the Affordable Care Act should be mended but not ended. What people don’t want to lose are the two most popular provisions of the act — requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said those provisions would be too expensive to include in any Republican replacement measure.

The least popular component is the individual mandate requiring every American to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. If you do away with the mandate, however, the entire plan falls apart. So mending the law won’t be easy.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Democrats had a stroke of luck.  On April 1, Ryan came out with a 10-year budget plan involving massive cuts in popular federal programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, education, student loans and environmental protection. Ryan’s proposal would eventually change Medicare — the most popular of all federal programs — from an insurance policy to a “premium support” program, where seniors would be given subsidies to purchase private insurance. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney proposed doing that in 2012. Look where it got him

“Thank you, thank you, Congressman Paul Ryan for reminding us what Republicans would do if they had control,” Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) remarked. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Democratic whip, called it “a bad April Fool’s joke.”

Ryan’s proposal, which includes repeal of Obamacare, is a severe austerity plan aimed at achieving a balanced budget by 2024. There is no evidence that most Americans are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices necessary to get a balanced budget. Nor is Ryanomics likely to be signed into law.

What it does is give Democrats something to run against. “The choice is stark,” Reid said, as he stood on the Senate steps flanked by more than 30 Democratic senators. “The American people are watching.”

Democrats will run against Ryanomics. Republicans will run against Obamacare. Remember the rule of pragmatism: Whatever works is right.

If Americans come to believe Obamacare works, they will be reluctant to throw it out.  Especially the millions who will already have a stake in Obamacare. On the other hand, Ryan is threatening to do away with programs like Medicare that people know are working. Why? Because he and his fellow Republicans think those programs are wrong. Attacking programs that work is pure ideological bloodlust. And a losing battle for sure.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.

The first woman president is not about the past

March 10th, 2014

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Want to know the latest meme in U.S. politics? Here it is: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the past.

It’s been spreading through the political press. Now Republicans are beginning to echo it.

“Elections are almost always about the future,” says the Washington Post, “and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past.” The woman who ran for president most recently, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), contrasts Clinton with President Barack Obama. Obama, she told Politico, was “new and different,” while Clinton is an old-timer less likely to excite voters.

Want to see excitement? Look at the polls. In the latest CBS News-New York Times survey, 64 percent of Americans say they would like to see Clinton run for president. No other potential contender in either party — Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — gets more than 33 percent.

The first woman president of the United States is not about the past. It’s about the New America — the coalition that Obama brought to power. It’s a coalition of out-groups — including African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, gays, young people, the unchurched. What holds the coalition together is a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The New America gave us the first African-American president. It’s bound to be excited by the prospect of the first woman president.

Speaking in Florida this week, Clinton said, “Inclusive leadership is really what the 21st century is all about.” She explained, “It is the work of this century to complete the unfinished business of making sure that every girl and boy, that every woman and man, lives in societies that respect their rights no matter who they are, respects their potential and their talents, gives them the opportunities that every human being deserves. No matter where you were born, no matter the color of your skin, no matter your religion, your ethnicity or whom you love.” That’s the credo of the New America.

Her husband has become a magnetic figure on the campaign trail. President Bill Clinton went to Kentucky this week to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate who’s running against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Clinton carried Kentucky twice. Obama, not once. Obama’s job rating in Kentucky is 32 percent.

Democrats are defending seven Senate seats this year in states Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012. They are clamoring for Bill Clinton to campaign for them. Obama? Not so much.

The story is told that when George McGovern was the Democratic nominee back in 1972, his campaign manager called a Democratic congressman in Ohio and told him, “I have good news. Senator McGovern is going to come and campaign in your district.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the congressman said. “I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

“Wait a minute,” the McGovern manager said. “I haven’t told you when he’s coming.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the congressman replied. “Whenever Senator McGovern shows up, I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

Republicans will not be shy about bringing up the bad memories of the Clinton years. Paul recently labeled the former president a “sexual predator.” The Democratic contender in Kentucky had an answer for that. She summed up the Clinton years as, “Goodbye recession, hello prosperity!

To many Americans, a vote for Hillary Clinton would be a vote to restore the Clinton era — which they associate with good times (in every sense of the word). A vote for, say, Biden would be a vote for a third term for Obama.

Obama has managed to make the Clintons look more moderate. And more populist. In 2012, for the first time, a majority of Americans described the Democratic Party as “liberal.” In 2013 according to Gallup,43 percent of Democrats described themselves as liberals — the highest figure ever.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, criticized “the 1990s Clinton days where big corporations run the show and both parties suck up to them.”

Educated, upper-middle-class liberals like Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are trying to push the Democratic Party away from Bill Clinton’s New Democratic centrism toward what they regard as a more populist direction.

That’s the populism of the Occupy movement. It’s very popular at Harvard, where Warren used to teach, and Park Slope, Brooklyn, where de Blasio lived. The Clintons’ populist appeal is more authentic. They don’t talk about going after Wall Street or rich people or big business. They talk about bringing back prosperity.

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, told the Washington Post, “I think it’s really not helpful for the Democrats to turn this into an attack on the 1 percent. . . . As Republicans attack immigration, we attack rich people? If you learned anything from the president, selling hope is better than selling hate.”

A lot of experts believe the Senate is likely to go Republican this year. If that happens, the clamor for Hillary Clinton to run will be deafening. Democrats will see her as the only Democrat who can save the White House. And keep Republicans from gaining total control of Washington and obliterating the legacies of both Bill Clinton and Obama.

Will Hillary Clinton have an easy ride to the White House? Of course not. Republicans will hit her with everything they’ve got. They won’t stop talking about Benghazi. They’ll label her the godmother of Obamacare. As for the first woman thing, Bachmann told Politico, “There was acachet about having an African-American president because of guilt. People don’t hold guilt for a woman.”

One thing Clinton can’t promise to do is end the polarization of U.S. politics. The last four presidents — two Republicans and two Democrats — promised to do that. They all failed.  In the CBS-Times poll, an overwhelming 82 percent of Democrats say they would like to see Clinton run for president.

What percentage of Republicans would like to see her run? Zero.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.