Hil­lary Clin­ton says the econ­omy isn’t work­ing. So what’s her plan?

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

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?

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