Investors got some great news last Friday, even as the report for job seekers was far worse than expected. August job figures came in far below economists’ expectations (which, even if reached, would have been insufficient to bring a swift end to our employment crisis.)
“The remarkably weak GDP growth in this recovery is consistent with the extraordinarily weak job growth,” writes economist Dean Baker, who notes that “employment is performing far worse than in prior recoveries.”
But the misery that has gripped the nation was not being shared on Wall Street, where the S&P 500 reached a record high for the second week in a row. No wonder 71 percent of millennials believe that our economic system is rigged in favor of the rich. They’re paying attention.
Democrats should be telling the nation how they would create more and better jobs. Unfortunately, so far that doesn’t seem to be the strategy. Their instinct seems to be to trumpet what’s right about the economy instead. But that message won't resonate when economic conditions are so miserable for so many people – especially the core voters that Democrats will need if they are to win in November.
Modesty, Meet Obstructionism
The leadership's instinct is easy enough to understand. Parties in power like to boast of their successes – and with two out of three branches of government, Democrats are at least nominally in power. But Democratic economic proposals have lacked boldness and courage, while Republican obstructionism has rendered even modest proposals politically unfeasible. They should say more about that.
The American Jobs Act, which President Obama proposed in 2011, demonstrated both the modesty of Democratic proposals and the rigidity of Republican obstructionism. That proposal would have extended unemployment insurance, offered jobs training, and provided $132 billion in infrastructure and other job-creating programs.
Despite sky-high unemployment and under-employment, the bill was never expected to pass the Republican House. It didn’t even get that far. It was shut down by a series of Republican-led filibusters in the Senate – even though the Republicans were able to pass a $286.4 billion highway bill a few short years earlier. That 2005 GOP bill cost more than twice as much as the Jobs Act (much of it pork), and its passage occasioned some ribbon-cutting and congratulatory remarks between the-President George W. Bush and then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
“If we want people working in America,” said Bush, “we got to make sure our highways and roads are modern.” Congressional Republicans are determined to make sure President Obama never has the chance to utter a similar (if undoubtedly more grammatical) sentence.
Consider this: Obama proposed less than half the amount celebrated by Bush and Hastert, and even sweetened the deal with $253 billion in GOP-friendly tax credits – more than was being offered for direct job creation in his bill. That’s a pretty modest, Republican-friendly plan.
And yet, despite the national jobs emergency that had gripped the nation, his bill was never given a chance of succeeding. That’s obstructionism at its most extreme, and it’s now business as usual.
More Jobs = More Growth
Meanwhile, the evidence is in on the economy. We now know that:
1. The stimulus worked – but it wasn’t big enough.
2. Democrats offered modest proposals that diluted practical economic suggestions with unproven tax-cut ideas – and even those were rejected.
3. As a result, we’ve had 54 consecutive months of economic growth – but it’s not widely enough distributed, and the help isn’t getting to everyone who needs it.
4. Nearly 20 million Americans need full-time work. Job figures are especially weak for millennials, minorities and women (especially African-American women; and women overall lost more jobs during the long recession that took place after the crisis of 2008).
5. The jobs that have been created since the financial crisis skew toward lower-wage work.
6. A weak jobs market means weak wages for middle-class people who have jobs. The Economic Policy Institute reports that “Wages for the broad middle class declined over the last year, as they have for most of the past 40 years – dismal wage growth has been a key contributor to income stagnation and growing income inequality.”
In other words, helping the unemployed helps everyone.
Voters Hate This Economy
The lessons of the past five years should be clear by now: Democrats must offer bolder proposals, and they must draw clearer distinctions between their own position on jobs and that of their Republican opponents.
What they shouldn’t do is attempt to take victory laps to celebrate an economy that is only working for the wealthiest among us. That will help the Republicans do what they’ve already begun doing: painting the Democrats, rather than themselves, as an out-of-touch party that is beholden to the economic elite.
The mood of the voters is clear. Voters think the economy is lousy and that government is more interested in helping the rich than it is in helping them:
• 63 percent think most children will be worse off than their parents when they grow up.
• 55 percent say this country’s headed in the wrong direction on jobs and growth.
• As we’ve already mentioned, 71 percent of millennials think the system’s rigged in favor of the rich.
• 59 percent personally worry about the economy a great deal, and 64 percent are suffering or struggling with their own financial wellbeing.
• And, in a finding that could be especially damaging to incumbents, 71 percent of Americans believe that the primary source of our economic difficulties is our elected officials’ inability to get things done to improve the economy.
(For details on this and other polling data, see PopulistMajority.org.)
Voters Want Jobs
What do voters want? Jobs. When do they want them? Take a look and decide for yourself:
• 61 percent believe the Federal government should encourage job creation through laws, incentives, and regulations.
• 60 percent say “my employment or education opportunities are a lot less than I thought they’d be.”
• 78 percent of millennials want the government to be more involved in creating jobs.
• 84 percent of millennials support government-subsidized jobs for low-income workers and the long-term unemployed.
• 70 percent of voters say this is not a good time to find a quality job.
• 68 percent think that it’s hard for people who work hard to maintain their standard of living.
• 74 percent felt that improving the job situation should have been a top priority for the President and Congress in 2014.
• 65 percent say job creation, not deficit reduction, should be a top priority.
• And, in a figure Democrats should remember, 86 percent say the economy will be an important factor when deciding who to vote for in November.
Voters Need a Reason to Vote
Voters are being hurt by today’s divided economy. While the stock market soars, they’re struggling to stay afloat. They’re worried and angry, and they’re watching their leaders to see who seems to be fighting for them. That’s why the minimum-wage movement is growing, and why the minimum wage must be part of Democrats’ messaging too.
Fifty-four months of growth is a good record, at least in the abstract, but it’s not a good record to run on – not when most of that growth has passed most Americans by. It’s an especially misguided strategy when one considers the plight of the Democratic Party’s base voters: Millennials, minorities, and women are having a hard time of it.
Off-year elections are driven by turnout. What are these Democratic voters being given that will spur them to show up and vote this year? Democratic politicians should remember that youth turnout was lower in 2010 than it was in 2006, before many voters knew much about Barack Obama. Another weak turnout could spell disaster for Democrats.
Voters go to the polls in less than 60 days. Democrats have very little time in which to tell that voters exactly what they would do to create more and better jobs, how that would benefit both the unemployed and the underpaid middle class, and who is preventing them from creating those jobs.
If they don’t make that case, and quickly, they may soon be looking for jobs themselves.