Hillary Clinton says the economy isn’t working. So what’s her plan?
In a week, Hillary Rodham Clinton will take the next step in her campaign for president with a big rally in New York. Her aides say that she will offer a fuller description of where she would take the country. On economic policies, will she stand with President Obama or apart from him and closer to her populist rivals on the left?
The answer depends in part on how Clinton diagnoses the state of the economy and on the effect of the president’s policies. Friday’s employment report showed an increase of 280,000 jobs in May, the best this year. As White House officials noted, the economy has added private sector jobs for 63 consecutive months. In the past two years, more than 5.6 million jobs have been added to the economy and 12.6 million since the consecutive-months streak started.
The employment numbers provided a helpful offset to the recent report showing that the economy had contracted during the first quarter of the year because of severe winter weather and other factors.
That may be just one bad quarter. But for all the jobs added over the past five years, the economy continues to grow slowly, and many Americans continue to say that they haven’t seen much benefit. More than 7 in 10 Americans say they remain worried about the future direction of the economy, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Clinton has said that the economy is not working for everyone and that the deck is stacked against ordinary Americans and in favor of those with power, influence and financial wealth. In one form or another, she is saying that, after more than six years with a Democratic administration and despite the number of jobs added, the economy still isn’t working the way it should.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley have launched their candidacies with a populist critique of the economic status quo. As they, like Clinton, aim their toughest critiques at Republican policies, their economic analyses also represent at least a partial rebuke of their own party’s policies.
When she announced her candidacy in April, Clinton highlighted the economic unease of many American families and said she wanted to be a champion for the middle class. What she has not done is offer an explanation of why Democratic policies have failed to adequately address the factors that contribute to middle-class angst.
Sanders and O’Malley have argued that the administration has not been vigorous enough in taking on entrenched economic power on behalf of workers. They also have said that officials have been negligent in not trying to bring some in the banking community to justice for their contributions to the collapse of the financial system in autumn 2008. Both call for significant increases in government spending for infrastructure and other domestic initiatives.
Sanders and O’Malley also see the pending 12-nation TransPacific Partnership as emblematic of the administration’s upside-down values when it comes to workers. They have come out against the agreement (which is still being negotiated) as being bad for American workers. But that’s not so with Clinton, who promoted a Pacific trade deal as secretary of state. Until there is or isn’t an agreement, she is reserving judgment, keeping a foot in both camps.
Rhetorically, Clinton often has sounded like Sanders and O’Malley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is credited with pushing populist themes into the national debate. In policy terms, Clinton has been holding back, but that time may be coming to an end.
Will she embrace the president’s policies, arguing that they simply need a bit of tweaking and more time to begin spreading benefits more widely? Will she claim that the Republicans have blocked the Democrats’ policies from being fully realized and provide evidence that she would have greater success than Obama in getting them implemented? Or will she acknowledge implicitly or explicitly that the policies haven’t worked and set a different course?
Right now, the 2016 presidential election appears to be headed toward a stale rerun of the two-party economic debate of the last campaign. Republicans say Obama’s policies— spending, taxing and regulatory— are inhibiting growth. They see big government as an obstacle and would pare away at its size and reach. Democrats see Republicans as offering a return to policies that favor the wealthy and that provide little for working families, policies that would cut spending and create pain.
This debate played out in 2012 as a “who do you trust” choice. Obama cast himself as the empathetic protector of the middle class and attacked Republican rival Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch business executive who cared only about profits for corporations and their owners and not for average people. Romney described Obama as someone who understood little about how the economy really worked.
Voters split over who would be better at handling the economy (49 percent for Romney, 48 percent for Obama), but on the question of who cares about “people like me,” 81 percent cited the president. Case closed.
But a “who do you trust” frame isn’t sufficient. As the recovery has failed to produce a more equitable distribution of benefits, and as overall growth rates remain well below what they were a generation ago (through both Republican and Democratic administrations), it’s clear that something more is needed in the coming election. The prospect of another predictable economic debate between the two parties is hardly what the country needs.
Republicans have their own questions to answer about how they would change their policies. It is popular now for Republican candidates to talk about the lack of economic mobility and the gap between Wall Street and Main Street. They are trying to avoid the trap that Romney fell into in the last election. But voters have a right to know whether candidates have fresh thinking behind their rhetoric. So far, there’s been only a little of that.
Among Democrats, party progressives are clamoring for something more than more of the same. But 21/2 years after Obama defeated Romney, some Democrats plainly think that empathy alone will not solve the problems of a struggling middle class. The possibility of an engaged Democratic-nomination contest provides the vehicle for a debate that would examine what has and hasn’t worked.
Sanders, O’Malley and the others who are joining the race might not be equipped politically to deny Clinton the nomination. Still, their presence makes it more likely that Democrats will get the debate that many say they would like to see.
No one, including Clinton, argues for a return to the policies of her husband’s presidency, though the economy was strong then. But neither is she likely to want to run as a third term of the Obama presidency. If Clinton thinks the president’s economic policies have been and are working, she could say so directly. If she thinks they have been inadequate regarding the size and complexity of the economic ills that she describes, she can say that. She now has an open forum in which to engage those questions.
Will Hillary Clinton acknowledge implicitly or explicitly that the policies haven’t worked and set a different course?