Economy overshadows presidential issues

It’s the economy, stupid.” If this economy kick-starts into strong growth over the next year, then there is virtually no chance the U.S. electorate will replace President George W. Bush with a Democrat. This is my conclusion, cynical though it may be. Americans will forget about the quagmire in Iraq, the expanding budget deficit and the Republicans’ silence on health care and corporate governance; they will re-elect the guy who “got the economy going.”

Of course, this is all premature. So is the excitement over new economic figures saying the economy grew at the highest rate since the Ronald Reagan era, at 7.2 percent for the third quarter. This is strong growth even if it is a preliminary estimate, and even if, as economic authorities have advised, it is a “one-hit wonder” that will quickly drop to recession levels of growth next quarter. Yet, some observers and ordinary Americans already credit the president’s economic policies with the growth rate.

Exactly how much Bush’s policies have to do with economic growth is an academic debate. But for working Americans, it is a matter of simply guilt (or credit) by association. For example, if President Bill Clinton is in office and the gross domestic product grows constantly for four years, then he probably has something to do with it, the public reasons. So they re-elect him.

But there are so many issues that should be on the table with the expanding GDP. There is income inequality – which has nothing to do with “class warfare” and everything to do with economic mobility – which has been steadily increasing even before the supply-side tax cuts Republicans implemented. There are the rising health-care costs, which, on a local level, have been a primary cause of the clerical workers’ strike. The war in Iraq would present an interesting debate, but nay-sayers are going to be written off by the media and the public as “shrill” or overly critical if the economy is picking up. Any Democratic candidate who covers these important issues is going to look weak if there is a strong economy.

The American emphasis on the economy comes out when we are polled about the issues we care about the most. We care more about the economy than anything, including the next two most important issues – health care and the war in Iraq. If these poll results strike me as sobering, it is only because I think monetary gain should be one of our foci but not the primary one. When Americans say they care about the “economy,” what they mean is they care about the abstract indicators that experts and the media feed us, which they believe to be linked directly to their own economic future. This is misleading, because indicators such as gross domestic product do not tell us how the growth is distributed or if it is likely to be long-term growth. For example, our economy can expand rapidly even as thousands enter poverty, if you only look at GDP.

So there can be a war going on with steadily rising casualties, health-care costs soaring without anyone offering solutions, a scandal involving top administration, and yet Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia is telling me the president is invulnerable next year? Just because of strong growth in the last year of a four-year stretch where we shed nearly 3 million jobs? “You cannot defeat a president who is presiding over a strong economy,” were his exact words, and sadly, I believe him.

Is it that we as a nation are greedy and see an improving national economy as a predictor of things looking up for us? Or are we just getting desperate with high unemployment and a nasty guerilla war taking down our volunteer army in a far-off land? I throw in with the latter and think most people will side with their pocketbooks when they vote next year, not out of greed, but out of fear. In part, the media is to blame for this effect.

I don’t fault my fellow Americans for worrying about their finances, but I find it troubling that we only want to know that our economy is growing; we do not care how it is distributed or how sustainable it is for the future. We don’t seem to care about all the other pressing issues that affect us daily. And we should. But from what I hear, we care only that the markets are up, the GDP is expanding and taxes are being cut.

There will be Democratic candidates for 2004 with interesting ideas and the capability of staffing some really intelligent people in Washington – but with the “kid gloves” media treatment Bush receives, they had better pray for the economy to slide in the next three quarters. Otherwise, the American people will vote “economic strength” and be too distracted to notice the other problems that will fall by the wayside.

Mitch Mosvick is a Carlson School of Management student. He welcomes comments at [email protected]