As the old phrase about voter sentiment goes, “it’s the economy, stupid.” And like it or lump it, one of the reasons President Obama rode to victory in 2008 was a foot-in-mouth moment from opponent Sen. John McCain during the height of the market meltdown.
That famous gaffe was a quote from McCain that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” while the Dow Jones tanked 500-plus points or over 4% in a single day on Sept. 15, 2008.
Whether McCain’s words were taken out of context – the senator claimed he was waxing philosophical about the fundamental strength of the American economy and its workers – is irrelevant. In politics, it’s less about reality and more about what the America people believe and what the media chooses to focus on.
I don’t pretend to know what will happen with the economy or the stock market between now and November 2012. But as a former opinion page editor for a daily newspaper, I’d like to think I have a pretty good sense for the behavior of politicos and the mainstream press. And based on current trends, here are 5 issues I think that are going to be front and center in the coming months as the presidential contest comes into focus.
And as you’ll see, all five of these issues could work decidedly against Obama’s re-election.
Personally, I believe that criticism of the Federal Reserve is overdone. Every sane economist agrees that an independent central bank is crucial to a functional economy, though intelligent people can and will disagree about the level of oversight necessary for such an important institution.
But people like to blame someone in hard times, and with the dual mandate of both fighting inflation and fighting unemployment the Fed is the perfect whipping boy. Gasoline prices are soaring and unemployment remains stubbornly high as the sheer enormity of the unemployed means the recent jobs added to payrolls is just a drop in the bucket.
What’s more, voters don’t appreciate nuanced positions. As a friend of mine says, “ The chicken in the middle of the road gets run over.” Ron Paul and his tea party buddies have decisively staked out a position against the Fed – and as long as rhetoric doesn’t spin out of control with promises of a gold standard or legislation demanding the Fed chairman be subject to popular vote, Obama’s opponents have the high ground on this issue.
As I just mentioned, payrolls just can’t grow fast enough to erode the high unemployment rate. Consider that in March, about 216,000 nonfarm jobs were added – and that didn’t even move the needle from an 8.8% jobless rate. If the economy needs to add a million jobs a month to significantly draw down that glaring percentage that so easily fits into headlines and news teasers, Obama is in big trouble.
Logically, it’s not Obama’s fault. From December 2007 to October 2010, a total of 7.5 million jobs were lost in the U.S. The unemployment rate peaked in the summer of 2009 at about 10.6%, the highest since 1983, and the average unemployment rate across that brutal year was the highest average since 1948. That’s a heck of a deck to be playing with.
But we are a nation of fast food, short attention spans and instant gratification. Heck, four years ago the iPhone didn’t even exist! One presidential term is a lifetime to an electorate, and a lack of progress will be seen as a failure no matter how rough the situation was when the incumbent took office.