Former Republican State Senator Bill Campbell once joked that if you laid all the economists in the country end to end, it would be a good idea. Today, we have political and economic prognosticators mired in trying to come up with conclusions on what’s happening with the economy between now and Election Day and what its impact might be on races from the Presidency on down. Lots of luck.
There is no question that the economy is at the center of this year’s political equation. It’s also the reality that political uncertainties are contributing to the current economic malaise. What is difficult to figure out is how these forces are going to play out on November 6 and moving forward.
A disheartening economy is baked into the current political environment. It’s still “the economy, stupid”, but neither the parties nor the candidates seem to have a handle on how to turn the situation to their own advantage. Obviously, President Obama is suffering from inflated expectations and acute disappointment over the pace of economic recovery and his stewardship of it. At the same time, voters are aware that the bottom fell out of the economy at the conclusion of the Bush Administration and are wary of reverting to Bush era policies. Congress has the likeability of killer sharks without the respect that goes with it. Governor Romney benefits from his perceived expertise as a “business leader”, but the electorate hasn’t yet come to a conclusion as to whose side he is on. The Romney-Ryan ticket talks a good game in terms of their recipe for rebuilding the economy, but they are keeping the ingredients to themselves–ingredients that many voters may choke on. How all this sorts out is anybody’s guess.
What seems certain is that the politics is like a rock weighing down the economy. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize winner to see that business decision-makers and investors are playing it close to the vest until they see which way the winds will be blowing after November. It isn’t that there is a clear choice for business between Obama and the Democrats on one hand and Romney and the Republicans on the other. Both have pluses and minuses. Democrats are a lot more likely to invest in education, infrastructure and health research. Republicans will loosen regulatory burdens and tax less. The problem is that we don’t know what the rules of the game are until we see who wins.
There is no great mystery as to why employment is lagging other economic indicators. Employers are waiting for answers. How is health insurance going to work? What is the tax system going to look like? How seriously are anti-global warning initiatives going to be pursued? What’s going to happen with defense spending? Businesses can learn to cope with almost any policy, but they can’t cope with uncertainty. Hopefully, this November’s election results will provide some of the clarity that decision-makers need to make more robust hiring commitments.
None of this means that the job market will suddenly catch fire on November 7. First, it is highly doubtful that either party will have the electoral clout to impose their policy will unimpeded. Even if Romney wins and the GOP ends up with majorities in both houses, the 60-vote cloture requirement and the arcane rules of the Senate will still leave the Democrats a lot of blocking power–just ask President Obama. If the President is re-elected, he is likely to face a Congress with the GOP still in charge of at least one house. In either case, it remains to be seen whether the executive and legislative branches can learn to play nice and actually negotiate in good faith on big issues like the “fiscal cliff,” health care reform, Medicare, Social Security, transportation, energy and the environment. Will we go through another round of debt-ceiling Russian roulette? What is going to happen with the European debt crisis and the volatility of the Chinese economy?
The November 6 election isn’t going to answer all the questions or cure what ails the economy, but it will provide some clues as to the path forward. At least the economy will be relieved of a campaign season that has instilled more fear than hope. Maybe that will give the private sector enough comfort to start accelerating hiring and fire up the economic burners.