As any political scientist will tell you, the state of the economy has an enormous impact on the outcome of presidential races: In boom times an incumbent president is almost certain to be reelected, but if a recession hits there’ll be almost nothing he can do to stay in office.
But what if the economy is just ... OK?
For all the warning signs that a recession may be coming sometime soon, that may well be the situation we find ourselves in this time next year. Indeed, despite what President Donald Trump says, it’s where we find ourselves right now.
And this should provide Democrats an opportunity to win the election and then alter the way the American economy works in fundamental ways.
The government just released its latest jobs data, showing that the economy added 130,000 jobs in August. A single month doesn’t mean much, but that’s a mediocre pace. Job creation has slowed this year, and what will irritate Trump the most is that while he has seen 6 million jobs created in the nearly three years of his term, he’s doing worse on that score than Barack Obama did in his second term, when 10 million jobs were created in four years.
Nevertheless, unemployment is about as low as it can be expected to go, inflation is all but non-existent, and wages are beginning to rise, as you’d expect in a tight labor market. But how many Americans feel that the economy is the best it could possibly be, as Trump keeps telling them?
The Washington Post’s Heather Long recently pointed to an illustrative bit of data: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 10 occupations projected to show the highest job growth over the next decade, six pay less than $27,000 a year on average. No. 1 is “personal care aides,” with an average salary of $24,020 a year. Next comes food service workers, at $21,250 a year. Home health aides, cooks, waiters and waitresses, and janitors are all on the list too.
Which illustrates a central question about this economy: If pretty much anybody can get a job, but the only job you can get is working in a fast food restaurant or being a home health aide for low pay and little benefits, are you going to feel like you’ve obtained the American Dream? And are you going to say to the people in charge in Washington, “Thank you so much for the blessings you’ve bestowed on me, here’s my vote so you can keep doing what you’re doing”?
Which brings us to the case Democrats will make against Trump and his party in 2020.
In part this case will be a response to the conditions of the moment — if we tumble into a recession, they’re more likely to talk about what we need to do to reverse it in the short term and claim that Republican policies are responsible for the current crisis.
But if things stay pretty much as they are, they’ll say what they’ve been saying, which is that the things that are wrong have been wrong for a long time.
We could create a million new jobs next month, and we’d still have shocking inequality, much more so than our peer countries that tend to feature more robust social supports and regulations not written so much to benefit the wealthiest and most powerful. According to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the country with the second-highest proportion of wealth controlled by the top 1% of households is Austria, where that top 1% has 25.5% of the wealth. In Canada it’s 16.7%; in Japan, 10.8%; in the U.K., 20.5%.
In the U.S., it’s 42.5%.
Here in America, on one hand we have laws that suppress collective bargaining, limit worker rights, and allow the wealthy to avoid paying taxes. On the other, we don’t have the universal health insurance, free child care, and paid family leave that makes life so much more tolerable and secure for even people with low incomes in our peer countries.
Democrats are hoping to change both sides of that problem, and they’re offering up the most comprehensive and in some ways radical set of plans in memory. The question is whether they can convince voters that things could actually be different than they are now.
We see this in the debate over universal health insurance. If you listen to Republicans you’d think this is an aspiration so absurd that it’s simply beyond the capacity of human ingenuity to achieve. That’s despite the fact that every other industrialized country has managed it, and for much less money than we spend.
That’s the basic challenge Democrats face as they try to convince voters to sign on with a program of serious change. They need people to believe that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can have an economy that isn’t built to enhance the wealth of the wealthy while everyone else lives in a state of perpetual anxiety about their future and that of their families. The system we have now wasn’t created by accident; it’s the result of choices we made, and we can make different ones.
Even if a moment of economic crisis might be good for the opposition party, a situation like the one we’re in now — when jobs are plentiful but people still know that something is missing — might provide the best opportunity to make that case. Republicans, on the other hand, will say “No. This is the best we can do. Be thankful you have a job at all.”
We’ll see which story the voters find more compelling.