America’s economy election

Godfrey Hodgson
17 October 2008

Bill Clinton became United States president in 1992 by repeating as his mantra: "It's the economy, stupid!" The insistent message helped him to victory against an incumbent president, George HW Bush who exuded little concern about the money-worries facing millions of American families.

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Bush senior had been a successful foreign-policy president. He negotiated the end of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany with great skill. He brought together a genuine ""coalition of the willing" to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait after the Iraqi dictator's invasion of August 1990. But when his advisers suggested he might show more understanding of everyday citizens' financial circumstances, he flunked the test.

He decided to go and buy, of all things, a pair of tennis socks. In the process, watched by the pitiless eye of television news, it became apparent that he had not bought anything for himself since modern retail technology was invented. The voters drew their own conclusions, and sent Bill Clinton to the White House.

A neglected world

The episode - and the core election theme - is revealing in that it highlights the way that what Americans call "pocketbook issues" have not since the 1960s been as salient in the US as they usually have been elsewhere in democratic politics. But this is not because - as neo-conservative commentators like Irving Kristol maintain - Americans are so rich that they no longer care about economic issues.

In fact - and amazing as it may seem - the income of most Americans has risen very little in these decades. There has been a substantial increase in the United States's gross domestic product. But the lion's share of that increment has gone to a small fraction of the population: to people, in fact, like the Bushes and the rest of the political class, including - a key point - those in the media who report and comment on politics.

The economic concerns of American voters have certainly affected the fortunes of individual politicians and their campaigns. But these have since the 1960s in general been less central and influential than social, moral and foreign-policy issues (see "The next big issue: inequality in America", 13 September 2006).

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Among his books are An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969). Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996);  The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); and More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the new century (Princeton University Press, 2006). A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007) 

Among Godfrey Hodgson's recent openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)  

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008) 

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008) 

"Barack Obama's political tour" (28 July 2008) 

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008) 

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008) 

"Metapolitics: America's election faultline" (18 September 2008)

"The week that democracy won" (29 September 2008)

The consequences have often been bizarre. Candidates have fallen by their stands on abortion or marijuana; careers have been blighted by charges of mental instability (Thomas Eagleton, Edmund Muskie) or sexual peccadillo (Edward M Kennedy, Gary Hart), by military prowess or the lack of it (Bill Clinton, John Kerry).

Most potent of all has been the search for "national security". During these same four decades the specific nature of the threat to American security has changed several times: from the Vietcong to the Sandinistas, from the Soviet Union to al- Qaida. Jimmy Carter's career was cut short because he failed to rescue hostages from Iran, and even Ronald Reagan nearly got into serious trouble because over-enthusiastic aides (in the teeth of congressional prohibition) tried to raise money for Contra rebels in Nicaragua by selling missiles to Tehran.

American news media could not often be distracted long enough from such exciting stories to focus on the growing dependence on foreign energy; on cheap Chinese imports; on the proportion of America's public debt that was accumulating in foreign governments' reserves; or even on the relatively stagnating incomes of the majority of American voters.

A desperate throw

The election of 2008 looked for a long time as if it would follow the same pattern. It began with the focus on the George W Bush administration's sins of commission and omission, on the incompetence of the war in Iraq and the immorality of officially sponsored kidnapping and torture.

All three plausible candidates for the presidency - John McCain in the beginning as much as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - pitched their original appeal in terms of the need for "change", defined in ethical or nationalist terms. Somehow, all three agreed in the early stages of the campaign, the nation had lost its way. They differed on precisely what had gone wrong, and even more on how the right path could be found. But to begin with, all campaigned in the classic vein pioneered by the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s and (albeit in a very different style) by Ronald Reagan in 1980. The nation, all began by preaching, must be brought back to a "new frontier" so that it could be "morning again" in America.

As the campaign went on, however, and in particular as the two Democratic front-runners ran head to head, the missionary in each campaign began to give way to the manipulative.

In the immediate aftermath of the Democratic convention in Denver, the McCain campaign made what was hailed by many commentators as a brilliant stroke. It chose the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin - moose-slayer and hockey-mom - as the Republican vice-presidential candidate. The religious right, the social conservatives, rallied to senator McCain's cause. Money even flowed in, though far less than the huge numbers flowing via the internet to senator Obama.

Then Wall Street fell. Suddenly, it was indeed the economy, stupid.

President Bush turned over the powers of the presidency to his treasury secretary. Hank Paulson came up with his package: "objectionable", he still insists, but necessary. The revised prescription eventually passed through both houses of Congress and into law after an epic political contest (see "The week that democracy won", 29 September 2008). But it was only as the markets failed to revive even after the $700-billion bailout was agreed - and after the British prime minister led the way by large-scale direct infusion of funds into British banks - did Washington, in desperation, follow suit.

The world turns upside down, a Republican administration takes the risk of being called socialist - and the effect is to put the economy unambiguously at the front and centre of US presidential politics. The evidence suggests that this has helped Barack Obama, and kicked the ladder out from under John McCain. At the time of writing, Obama leads by ten points in national opinion-polls, and by at least the same distance in the critical "swing" states.

A last doubt

As the economy grows in prominence, the question of race may be expected to diminish. But it is not quite so straightforward - for there remains the question of what is known in American politics as the "Bradley effect".

Tom Bradley was an African-American mayor of Los Angeles. When he ran for governor of the state in 1982, he was leading comfortably in the polls but lost by a narrow margin. The conclusion most observers drew was that a significant number of Californians told pollsters that they would support Bradley, only to cast their vote for his opponent, George Deukmejian Jr, on election-day.

Something similar pattern happened in other elections involving African-American candidates - among them a governor of Virginia (L Douglas Wilder), and candidates in New York (including David Dinkins) and Illinois (including Jesse Jackson and Harold Washington).

It is plausible on these grounds to believe that many American voters who have told pollsters that they will vote for Obama (or that they do not know who will get their vote) will in the event vote for his Republican opponent.

Obama, however, is now comfortably ahead in the polls, and by a margin that both exceeds the margin of error and gives him a little reserve against a Bradley effect. If the economic crisis continues to loom as the most important issue in the minds of the voters, this should continue to favour Obama - even though McCain is using a new-found symbol of hardworking American rectitude to fight back strongly on this very territory.

Something could still happen to displace the economic crisis from its pole position in the race (see "America's foreign-policy election", 28 August 2008). But with the banking system still teetering on the edge of the abyss, and the Bush administration's long-fragile reputation for competence now utterly discredited, it does begin to look as though the United States will elect (allowing for Obama's mixed ancestry) the first African-American president in history.

That would be a momentous event in itself. But a victory on the pocketbook issues would also put an end to the residue of exceptionalist, neocon bragging about how Americans are so rich they can afford not to worry about the economy. Even the media class will have to refocus its gaze. That too would have great consequences over the next four years.

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