In Barack Obama’s interview with The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, published on Sunday, he attempts to explain
his economic legacy. The president begins, tellingly, by making appraisals that no American
worker would ever make.
“I actually compare our economic performance to how, historically, countries that have wrenching financial crises perform,” Obama says. “By that measure, we probably managed this better than any large economy on Earth in modern history.”
Unfortunately, workers who haven’t seen a raise in 15 years, and have seen their living standards decline even more rapidly through the last eight, don’t grade on a curve. They don’t compare their plight to Norway’s in the 1980s or Japan’s in the 1990s. They look at their own lives and decide whether or not they’ve improved.
Have they? In the aggregate, yes; we have experienced an economic recovery. But in an age of skyrocketing inequality, we haven’t all felt that recovery. And that makes the politics of the post-Obama age harder for Hillary Clinton and Democrats nationwide.
Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College, has contributed the seminal chart for thinking about how the U.S. economy works today. In the 1940s and 1950s, income growth after recessions went almost exclusively to the bottom 90 percent of earners. That began to change throughout the decades, until the 2009-2012 period, where more than all the income growth went to the top 10 percent; the bottom 90 percent actually saw their incomes fall in this most recent post-recession period. That’s where it gets so hard to assess the Obama economy: All this upward redistribution means that we can have a recovery without many of our citizens feeling it.
Obama’s defense of his economic record further assumes that countries with financial crises are doomed to sclerotic economic performance for years, and that our middling recovery therefore represents an outstanding achievement. But as I wrote in the New Republic back in 2014, the president’s own former economic adviser Christina Romer showed in a paper that economic recoveries don’t have to be slow. Policymakers have alternatives beyond enduring the hardship and hoping to eke out something half-decent.
As it happens, Obama had a host of untried options, none of which required sign-off from Congress, that could have improved the economy for everyone—a functional foreclosure mitigation program, measures to limit the increased leakage of corporate profits to shareholder payouts, or aggressive enforcement of the antitrust laws to increase competition, to name a few. He also pivoted to deficit reduction within a year in office, and the resulting austerity was unhelpful. In combination, these actions not taken—and taken—not only slowed the recovery, but also ensured it would be unequal. Whatever benefits eventually arrived would be shared by a select few.
Obama appears to think that his problem was not a failure to explore these other options, but merely one of public relations. “We were moving so fast early on that we couldn’t take victory laps,” Obama said. He blamed misinformation from the Republican noise machine for diminishing his achievements. He blamed himself for not explaining clearly how he saved the nation from depression. And in darker moments, he blamed transformative modern economic forces like globalization and advancing technology—forces that, in Obama’s view, no president could have adequately dealt with.
This all rests on some questionable assumptions—we’re not losing jobs to robots, for one. But beyond that, blaming the rubes for not knowing a great economy when they see one, or deciding that the path taken was the only one possible, reveals in Obama a certain disconnectedness from the lived experience of most Americans, particularly those in the working class.
That disconnectedness is not just limited to Obama; it’s increasingly true of the Democratic Party leadership as a whole. Research shows that more highly educated adults are increasingly more Democratic, creating a party rooted in the professional classes rather than in rank-and-file workers. Additionally, geographical separation by income ensures that the wealthier, more educated clusters don’t have to come into contact with anyone from outside their social class. This creates a concentrated party elite physically cut off from the broader public. Inside these bubbles, the economy looks pretty good; outside, the story is less clear.
Having those elites admonish people for not recognizing the brilliance of their policy triumphs must sound to the unwashed masses like their leaders are speaking a different language. And that’s going to be a problem for the Democrats running on Obama’s record in the 2016 elections, particularly the woman likely to be at the top of the ticket.
Even before Bernie Sanders’s entry into the race, Hillary Clinton spent much of the primary season empathizing with people who have not seen their fortunes raised after the Great Recession. “Many are still barely getting by,” she said to the New America Foundation in May 2014. “The dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach. And many Americans understandably feel frustrated—even angry.”
As the campaign has gone on, however, she’s also retreated, when politically expedient, to a defense of Barack Obama’s record, an inescapable task for the standard-bearer of the current president’s party. “I’d give him an A,” Clinton told The Boston Globe last October. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for saving our economy from falling into a great depression … for really being as responsive as he could possibly be given the obstructionism that he faced with the Republicans in Congress.”
This dichotomy—supporting Obama’s record while acknowledging that it has not benefited everyone—will be a defining challenge for Clinton and everyone else running for office as a Democrat. Tout the recovery too much and you appear out of touch; criticize it too much and you appear in agreement with persistent Republican cries about Obama’s economic failures.
This would be a fascinating puzzle for Clinton to solve if this were a normal election. However, she is overwhelmingly likely to have as a general-election opponent Donald Trump, a sexist and racist lout running on extreme nationalism. Trump does pitch his appeal to working-class voters, often leading speeches by condemning corporations sending jobs overseas and the trade deals that facilitate them. But he intertwines that with not-so-hidden appeals to race and a stunning lack of interest in policy details.
In many respects, Trump is the perfect foil for the Clinton campaign; thanks to him, she might not have to take a firm stand on the economic question at all. She can run an identity-based campaign, seeking support from African-Americans, Latinos, and women, tinged with a show of policy expertise that reveals a superior fitness for office. She can play to people’s fears about Trump instead of their hopes, always an attractive option in politics, without needing to emphasize economic justice or rebalancing the inequality scales.
This means that the general election could feature far less detail about Clinton’s plans for financial reform or health care or education than the primary against Sanders has. The emphasis will be on tolerance and respect for immigrants or women, and the basic question of whether you want Donald Trump in control of the nuclear launch codes. Why talk about Obama’s track record when you can talk about Trump’s?
That’s likely a winning strategy. A coalition of professionals, minorities, and people freaked out about the prospect of a Trump presidency will likely amount to a majority of Americans for this election. But it isn’t a majority that’s going to push a Clinton presidency to prioritize the struggles of the working class. And I don’t know if there’s a way to change that, to turn an election featuring Donald Trump into an election about ideas.
During the primary, Clinton memorably asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow … would that end racism?” Set aside the fact that racism was at the heart of the subprime mortgage crisis, when toxic loans were handed out disproportionately to African-Americans. Clinton’s question reveals a clever way to opt out of this dilemma of how to properly credit Obama’s economic gains in an age of inequality, when all those gains go to the top. She can find other points of emphasis, enough to win a general election. But failing to address the real economic pains felt by large swaths of the country will not only exact a political price down the line, it will ensure that those pains continue far beyond when they could have been eased.