Riding on The Economy

President Bush will win their next two presidential debates and the election if, and that's a big if, he can convince voters that they are, and will continue to be, better off on his watch than on Kerry's. If he can't he will be another also-ran incumbent. The wisdom in the question that Ronald Reagan asked voters at the close of his debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980 still stands. He asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Carter was widely perceived as a president who flopped on economic matters. Reagan nailed him with that.

Jobs and the economy is the single biggest issue that determines the fate of presidents. In nine of eleven opinion polls since January, voters said that the most important thing for them is the economy. In some cities and counties in the crucial battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the economy has collapsed. Plant closings, high oil prices, and high consumer debt have caused deep economic misery for thousands of workers. Among young black males, it's far worse. The unemployment rate has reached near 1930s Depression level highs. Job gains through the country were far lower during the summer than Bush claims, and economists expected.

But the economy hasn't crashed. The Federal Reserve's micro-managing of interest rates, a still relatively low inflation rate, and the expansion of the retail and service industries, bolster Bush's boast that his administration has created thousands of new jobs, and that his tax policies have kept overall unemployment low. That's the powerful trump card that Bush plays to spin news, even bad economic news, as a gain. He solemnly pledges that there will be more economic goodies if he's re-elected. Again, if voters buy his pitch, he'll be re-elected. If not he'll be defeated.

That's what happened to the last five presidents. When unemployment is high or on the rise, and the GNP is stagnant or plunges, and voters perceive that things are bad and will get worse, presidents are routinely ousted. That combination of real and voter perceived economic woe sank Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush Sr. It helped and hurt Jimmy Carter. When the economy went bad for Ford in 1976, Carter won a narrow victory. Four years later, when the economy went bad for him, Reagan won in a near landslide. The exact reverse was true for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan's supply side economics, and big tax cuts, were credited with igniting a mid-1980s economic boom. Clinton's tax hike, deficit reduction program, and investment stimulus program, were credited with turning a record deficit into a record surplus and adding millions of new jobs to the rolls.

As Reagan's vice president, Bush Sr. benefited from his economic policies. In 1988, he won election. Four years later, when things turned sour he lost. The downturn for Bush Sr. came during the last two years of his term. Voters are much more likely to blame and punish a president if they go to the polls with economic doubts about him fresh in their minds. Even if Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot had not jumped in the race in 1992 and siphoned off a big chunk of the popular vote and ultimately electoral votes from Bush Sr., the jobs and economy curse of presidents would have still plagued Bush Sr. That would have given Clinton, then a relatively unknown politician, nationally a better than fighting chance to topple him.

Bush Sr.'s history has not repeated itself with Bush Jr. Unemployment is higher, and economic growth, as Democrats gleefully note, is slower than during Clinton's second term. But the Clinton bar is impossibly high to match. By all economic standards, his economic track record was the best of any of the last five presidents. Even with his inflated standard, during Bush's last two years, and despite the industrial erosion in some sections of the country, overall unemployment, and economic growth, has slightly improved. The first big wave of plant closings, corporate scandals, and the battle over his tax cuts raged during the first two years of his term. If those economic negatives had hit harder in his last two years, as it did with his father, almost certainly this would have been Kerry's get in the White House pass.

Since the Reagan-Carter 1980 presidential debate, presidential challengers, and even presidents, have stolen outright or used some variation of Reagan's devastating line on the economy to win or retain the White House. In their presidential debates and in the last days of the campaign, Kerry will do everything he can to convince voters that they are worse off than they were four years ago, and that they'll even be worse off still if Bush stays in office. History has amply shown Bush's fate hinges on whether they buy Kerry's claim.


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