Weekly Standard Online
May 7, 2011
by Irwin Stelzer
When the killing of Osama bin Laden was announced, Washingtonians joined in the nationwide spontaneous celebrations. Then began the calculation of the impact of the president's actions on his electoral prospects.
President Obama's poll ratings jumped a dozen points. Republicans will, for the time being, have a harder time typecasting the president as a wimp in the great tradition of Jimmy Carter. In short, foreign policy is more or less off the table for the president's critics, at least for now.
But economic policy definitely is not – 80 percent of Americans are unhappy with the direction of the economy and the president's handling of it. In 2012 the question will be whether jobs trump a successful take-out of the man responsible for bringing down the Twin Towers. If they do, the renewal of the president's lease on the White House is no sure thing, assuming some plausible Republican candidate emerges.
The latest jobs report shows that the president just might be able to add continuing good economic news to his newly minted credentials as a tough defender of U.S. security. The private sector created 268,000 new jobs in April, the biggest jump since February 2006. The number of long-term unemployed dropped by 283,000. In the view of some, the drop of 22,000 in state and local employment is further good news. There are some negatives, mainly a jump in the unemployment rate to 9 percent, but this is based on a smaller, less reliable survey than the basic jobs report. Close analysis of the data suggest that the job market has a long way to go before unemployment comes down, but close analysis is not the stuff of which election campaigns are made.
Although this month's jobs report is good news for the president, he still faces the fact that there are some 25 million Americans out of work, working shortened hours, or too discouraged to continue job hunting. And a not-totally promising economic outlook.
The annual rate of economic growth fell from 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of last year to a mere 1.8 percent in the first quarter of this year. Growth in the service sector is slowing, the inflation rate that real people feel – not the one that economists at the Federal Reserve Board think they should watch – is rising, and the housing market remains a drag on economic activity. Despite low interest rates and eased lending standards, demand for mortgages continues to decline. It will be a long while before house prices turn up, inventories of unsold houses turn down, and builders begin hiring construction workers to start a significant new round of home building.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the president is the continued rise in gasoline prices, now hovering around $4 per gallon. But even here he just might be able to add some good news to the bin Laden operation and the jobs growth: the recent significant decline in crude oil prices might ease pressure on gasoline prices, and even bring them down a bit. Gasoline at, say, $3.50 per gallon after a period of $4 prices generates a lot less anger than gasoline at $3.50 after a period of $3 gasoline.
Finally, Obama will benefit from the fact that the manufacturing sector, centred in the so-called Rust Belt, has added 250,000 jobs since the low-point in December 2009, and has grown for 21 consecutive months, including by 10 percent in the first quarter. These Rust Belt states –Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and parts of Pennsylvania – are key to any election victory. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is predicting that by 2015 the relatively low wages that have bedevilled American workers, along with improved productivity, a shortened supply chain, and rising wages and a rising yuan in China, will shift the manufacture of goods Americans buy back to the U.S. The revival of the manufacturing sector, if it continues, will enable the president to tell the trade union members who make up so large a part of his doorbell-ringing troops that his policies have restored "good-paying American jobs," the sort that many manufacturers are having trouble finding skilled workers to fill. Never mind that the coincidence of still-high unemployment with a shortage of skilled workers says something about the employability and skills of those now out of work: that is the sort of policy issue that generates more political rhetoric than political action.
The BCG consultants might just have it right. GE, Caterpillar, NCR and other recently announced plans to expand production in the U.S. And the American auto industry is rising from the ashes, partly because the auto companies are finally making cars Americans want to buy to replace their aging vehicles. True, supply problems of Japanese manufacturers helped U.S. makers gain market share, but consumers seem more interested in what the television ads call "imports from Detroit" than they have been for a long time.
It remains for the president to do something about the deficit. Americans are concerned about the growing burden of debt they are leaving to their children and grandchildren. To many, the fiscal mess is about more than dollars: it means that things are out of control, that the political process is malfunctioning. And the sinking dollar, a bit of a recovery at week's end notwithstanding, seems to underline the fact that things are in the saddle and ride mankind, or at least America.
For exporters, the weak dollar is good news, but consumers are already noticing that their dollars buy fewer of the imported goods stacked on Walmart's shelves. More important for many people is that the dollar's plunge smacks of national decline. Mexico recently dumped $4.5 billion in order to buy 93 tons of gold. Mexico dumping dollars is an idea many Americans find discomforting.
Only the president can take the lead in reversing these trends. Until now he has been reluctant to try to cut a deal with Tea Partiers. But this week serious negotiations, led by Vice President Joe Biden, got underway. The contours of the deal that will be struck this summer as part of a last-minute agreement to raise the debt ceiling, are visible through the fog of partisan rhetoric.
If this satisfies the markets that we are serious about cutting the deficit, so be it. But that is far from certain. Former senator Phil Gramm, a top economic advisor to Senator John McCain during the Arizona senator's 2008 presidential election campaign, reminded the team negotiating a deal to cut spending of the various ways in which previous Congresses had subverted spending caps: one such was declaring the cost of the 2000 census an "emergency" expense not subject to the cap even though such outlays were mandated in the Constitution over 200 years earlier.
If the president can pull off a budget deal with the Republicans, he just might run as the man who is restoring the nation's finances, curing unemployment, bringing down gasoline prices, hitting our enemies where it hurts, and bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Little wonder that so many Republican wannabes are reluctant to enter the race.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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