As a news story, the economy has been overshadowed lately by war abroad, a border crisis at home, and the escalating fight between President Obama and congressional Republicans on a variety of fronts.
But in the long run of presidential politics, the economy is still pretty much the only story that really matters, and, while there’s been some good news in recent days, there are plenty of troubling indications that today’s economic unhappiness will dominate our politics for years to come.
Yes, it’s a good thing that the economy grew at an estimated rate of 4 percent in the second quarter of this year, even though it contracted at a rate of 2.1 percent in the first quarter.
And yes, it’s a good thing that unemployment is now at 6.2 percent — down from a high of 10 percent in October 2009 — even though that reduction partly reflects the discouraged jobless who have left the workforce altogether.
But the bad news is really bad. The Russell Sage Foundation recently released a report showing that for households right in the middle of the American wealth distribution, net worth has declined from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013.
For households in the bottom quarter of the wealth distribution, net worth fell from $10,129 to $3,200 in the same period. And for those households in the lowest 5 percent, the last decade was about falling deeper into the hole; their net worth went from negative $9,749 to negative $27,416.
That kind of damage is not undone in a year, or two, or three. “Through at least 2013, there are very few signs of significant recovery from the losses in wealth experienced by American families during the Great Recession,” the Sage Foundation study notes. “Declines in net worth from 2007 to 2009 were large, and the declines continued through 2013.”
The damage extended beyond those Americans in the middle and below. Although net worth grew for households at the top of the wealth scale, for those in the 75th percentile — well above the average — the Sage Foundation found that net worth declined from $302,221 in 2003 to $260,405 in 2013.
Much of the loss for all groups came from a steep decline in home values, but job losses and the depletion of savings hit hard, too. And the net worth news comes on top of Census Bureau data showing that median household income fell from $55,030 in 2000 to $51,371 in 2012. So households not only had to get by with less income, they also felt less of the security that substantial savings and home values bring.
Barring some calamity like Sept. 11, how can our elections be about anything other than the hardships represented by those numbers?
“Economic anger is going to drive our politics for a long, long time,” says Stuart Stevens, the political strategist whose candidate, Mitt Romney, struggled to reach disaffected voters. “The 2014 races are more regional and have a lot of different factors, but I can’t imagine that the candidate who wins in 2016 won’t be the one who best speaks to this.”
The Democrats’ answer has been a menu of expanded transfer programs. Obamacare is the largest, offering health premium subsidies to those lower on the income scale but burdening many in the middle who either earn too much for a subsidy or for whom cost increases outweigh any subsidy they might receive.
Then there are other transfers: skyrocketing numbers of Americans on disability, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and many more. The result, not an unhappy one for Democrats, is that more Americans are dependent on government than ever before.
Republicans are still searching for a response. Some remain wedded to the party’s traditional tax-cutting agenda, but a group of conservative reformers believes there’s little left to gain from further marginal income tax rate cuts, preferring instead a plan to increase the child tax credit. It’s a promising proposal, but controversial — a Wall Street Journal column called it “a capitulation to the left’s inequality and middle-class talking points.” Rep. Paul Ryan’s new poverty agenda, unveiled last week, is also attracting criticism, although nothing quite so bracing.
Meanwhile, at least many Republicans have learned to say the right thing. One recent morning, with the border debate raging on Capitol Hill, Speaker John Boehner began a press conference, as he always does, with a vow to keep working to produce jobs and economic growth. Even as they fight the battles of the day, Republicans have to remember the big problem they must solve if they are to win in 2016 and beyond.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.