August 18, 2008
It’s the Economy Stupor
By PAUL KRUGMAN
By rights, John McCain should be getting hammered on economics.
After all, Mr. McCain proposes continuing the policies of a president who’s had a truly dismal economic record — job growth under the current administration has been the slowest in 60 years, even slower than job growth under the first President Bush. And the public blames the White House, giving Mr. Bush spectacularly low ratings on his handling of the economy.
Meanwhile, The Times reports that, according to associates, Mr. McCain still “dials up” Phil Gramm, the former senator who resigned as co-chairman of the campaign after calling America a “nation of whiners” and dismissing the country’s economic woes as nothing more than a “mental recession.” And Mr. Gramm is still considered a top pick for Treasury secretary.
So Mr. McCain would seem to offer a target a mile wide: a die-hard supporter of failed economic policies who takes his advice from people completely out of touch with the lives of working Americans.
But while polls continue to show that the public, by a large margin, trusts Democrats more than Republicans to handle the economy, recent polling shows that Barack Obama has at best a small edge over Mr. McCain on the issue
— four points in a recent Time magazine poll, and he is one point behind according to Rasmussen Reports
, which does automated polling. And Mr. Obama’s failure to achieve a decisive edge on economic policy is central to his failure to open up a big lead in overall polling.
Why isn’t the Obama campaign getting more traction on economic issues?
It’s not the Republican offensive on offshore drilling. It’s true that many Americans have apparently been misled by bogus claims about gas price relief. But as I’ve already pointed out, Democrats in general retain a large edge on economic issues.
Nor is there any valid basis for the complaints, highlighted in Sunday’s Times, that Mr. Obama isn’t offering enough policy specifics. Delve into the Obama campaign Web site and you’ll find plenty of policy detail. And the campaign’s ads reel off lots of specific policy proposals — too many, if you ask me.
No, the problem isn’t lack of specifics — it’s lack of passion. When it comes to the economy, Mr. Obama’s campaign seems oddly lethargic.
I was astonished at the flatness of the big economy speech he gave in St. Petersburg at the beginning of this month — a speech that was billed as the start of a new campaign focus on economic issues. Mr. Obama is a great orator, yet he began that speech with a litany of statistics that were probably meaningless to most listeners.
Worse yet, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid scoring political points. “Back in the 1990s,” he declared, “your incomes grew by $6,000, and over the last several years, they’ve actually fallen by nearly $1,000.” Um, not quite: real median household income didn’t rise $6,000 during “the 1990s,” it did so during the Clinton years, after falling under the first Bush administration. Income hasn’t fallen $1,000 in “recent years,” it’s fallen under George Bush, with all of the decline taking place before 2005.
Obama surrogates have shown a similar inclination to go for the capillaries rather than the jugular. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by two Obama advisers offered another blizzard of statistics almost burying the key point — that most Americans would pay lower taxes under the Obama tax plan than under the McCain plan.
All this makes a stark contrast with the campaign of the last Democrat to make it to the White House, who had no trouble conveying passion over matters economic.
In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 1992, a year in which economic conditions somewhat resembled those today, Bill Clinton denounced his opponent as someone “caught in the grip of a failed economic theory.” Where Mr. Obama spoke cryptically in St. Petersburg about a “reckless few” who “game the system, as we’ve seen in this housing crisis” — I know what he meant, I think, but how many voters got it? — Mr. Clinton declared that “those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded.” That’s the kind of hard-hitting populism that’s been absent from the Obama campaign so far.
Of course, Mr. Obama hasn’t given his own acceptance speech yet. Al Gore found a new populist fervor in August 2000, and surged in the polls. A comparable surge by Mr. Obama would give him a landslide victory this year.
But it’s up to him. If Mr. Obama can’t find the passion on economic matters that has been lacking in his campaign so far, he may yet lose this election.