WASHINGTON – Uh-oh. Now that the economy is doing well, what are Republicans – especially those running for president – going to complain about? And what are Democrats willing to celebrate?
Last week’s announcement that the economy grew at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter of 2014 – following 4.6 percent second-quarter growth – was the clearest and least debatable indication to date that sustained recovery is no longer a promise, it’s a fact.
Remember how Mitt Romney painted President Barack Obama as an economic naïf, presented himself as the consummate job-creator and promised to reduce unemployment to 6 percent by the end of his first term? Obama beat him by two full years: The jobless rate stands at 5.8 percent, which isn’t quite full employment but represents a stunning turnaround.
Since the day Obama took office, the U.S. economy has created well over 5 million jobs; if you measure from the low point of the Great Recession, as the administration prefers, the number approaches 10 million. It is true that the percentage of Americans participating in the workforce has declined, but this has to do with long-term demographic and social trends beyond any president’s control.
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Middle-class incomes have been flat, despite a recent uptick in wages. But gasoline prices have plummeted to an average of $2.29 a gallon nationwide, according to AAA. This translates into more disposable income for consumers; as far as the economy is concerned, it’s as if everyone got a raise.
The stock market, meanwhile, is at an all-time high, with the Dow soaring above 18,000. This is terrific for Wall Street and the 1 percenters, but it also fattens the pension funds and retirement accounts of the middle class.
All this happy economic news presents political problems – mostly for Republicans, but to some extent Democrats as well.
For Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and other potential GOP presidential contenders, the first question is whether to deny the obvious, accept it grudgingly or somehow embrace it.
For years, a central tenet of the Republican argument has been that on economic issues, Obama is either an incompetent or a socialist. It should have been clear from the beginning that he is neither, given the fact that he rescued an economy that was on the brink of tipping into depression – and did it in a way that was friendly to Wall Street’s interests.
But the GOP rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good story, so attacks on Obama’s economic stewardship have persisted.
The numbers we’re seeing now, however, make these charges of incompetence and/or socialism untenable. Even the Affordable Care Act – which Republicans still claim to want to repeal – turned out not to be the job-killer that critics imagined. All it has done, aside from making it possible for millions of uninsured Americans to get coverage, is help hold down the cost of medical care, which is rising at its slowest rate in decades.
GOP candidates face a dilemma. To win in the primaries, where the influence of the far-right activist base is magnified, it may be necessary to continue the give-no-quarter attacks on Obama’s record, regardless of what the facts might say.
But in the general election, against a capable Democratic candidate – someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she decides to run – pretending that up is down won’t cut it.
Likewise, the Republican leadership in the House and now the Senate will confront a stark choice. Do they collaborate with Obama on issues such as tax reform, infrastructure and the minimum wage in an attempt to further boost the recovery? Or do they grumble on the sidelines, giving the impression they are rooting against the country’s success?
Democrats, too, have choices to make. The fall in gas prices is partly due to a huge increase in U.S. production of fossil fuels. “Drill, baby, drill” may have been a GOP slogan, but it became reality under the Obama administration. Is the party prepared to celebrate fracking? Will Democratic candidates trumpet the prospect of energy independence?
Likewise, Elizabeth Warren charges that the administration’s coziness with Wall Street helps ensure that the deck remains stacked against the middle class. Warren says she isn’t running for president but wants to influence the debate. She has. Clinton’s speeches have begun sounding more populist, in spite of her long-standing Wall Street ties.
You know the old saying about how there’s no arguing with success? Our politicians are about to prove it wrong.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at eugene firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more columns from national writers, go to sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed
▪ Michael Gerson says that proof of political polarization is that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are suddenly seen as moderates.