By Paolo von Schirach
March 14, 2012
WASHINGTON – Listening to the pundits debating the upcoming presidential elections, the consensus boils down to this: if the unemployment rate stays as is (8,3%) or trends down between now and November, president Obama gets re-elected. If it goes higher, then he is in trouble and may not make it. Likewise, if gasoline prices go down he is alright. If they keep going up and they stay past the symbolic $ 4 a gallon before the vote, then Obama’s chances are diminished.
More than just jobs and gas?
Granted, these are important issues that are proxies for the overall health of the economy. But is there perhaps more? Could it be that the national political debate might include the reform of the welfare state, tax reform, foreign and security policy priorities, including this bad war in Afghanistan, science and technology issues, competitiveness, energy, infrastructure, China, relations with Europe, education? Well, not really. This stuff is mostly background noise.
Of course, all these topics are covered somewhere in speeches and policy papers posted on campaign websites. But they do not make the headlines. They do not energize the base and do not motivate Republican primary voters today and voters in the general election tomorrow to go one way or the other.
Narrow down to the essentials
As the pundits tell you, it is all very simple: with more jobs and cheap gasoline Obama gets the nod. If the opposite happens, then it is Romney, (assuming that he gets as far as getting the nomination, no longer a sure thing). In a way, it is good to see that, according to the analysts, Americans look at politics in a very practical way whereby political favor goes to whoever shows tangible results. But narrowing down the debate to a couple of metrics, as if they were the true condensation of everything else, represents a dangerous impoverishment of the national political conversation.
What about mixed scenarios?
I do agree that if a president is not even able to foster policies that will promote growth and jobs then he may not be a good steward for others policies either.
But what about a situation like the present one in which the economy is not awful but is instead mediocre, in which some jobs are created but not enough, in which the unemployment rate declined but is still extremely high by any historical standard? How do you evaluate an incumbent when trends are not terrible but hardly inspiring? And what about the impact of gigantic topics now ignored, such as the looming fiscal crisis? And equally important, how do you evaluate a challenger who has different ideas, but not a clearly discernible record?
Keep it simple
This is when serious debate (unlike the silly shows we have seen so far) and better understanding become important. But this is discouraged. In their efforts to boil down very complicated issues to a bumper sticker, the pundits have given their guidance to the voters: a few more jobs between now and November, Obama wins. Got that, American voter? You are hereby openly discouraged to delve more deploy on other policies. If under this sitting president the unemployment rate goes down, he gets the credit and you should really vote for him.
“But, wait a minute –asks the voter– what if jobs growth has really nothing to do with government’s policies?”
“ No, no, my friend. Stick with the guidance, and keep it simple. Jobs up: Obama in. Jobs down: Obama out“.
Impossible for the average voter to become an expert
Look, it is true that it is impossible to fill the huge gap between the horrible complexity of so many public policy issues and the average voter’s time to begin to understand arcane problems that often generate hundreds of pages of legislation. We cannot expect Americans to turn into all knowing, free lancing Washington policy wonks. This will never happen.
Possible to explain without dumbing down
Still, there is nothing good in keeping the debates on complex issues within the confines of a Washington DC, “inside the Beltway”, coterie of politicians, advisers and super experts, while the general public is in the dark, because no one takes the trouble to provide simplified, yet credible summaries of the big issues the Nation is facing. No, Mr. And Mrs. America; it is not just about jobs and gas prices. There is a lot more. But nobody from high up will make it their mission to tell you. And this knowledge gap is no small thing. Remember Thomas Jefferson warnings about the impossibility of being both ignorant and free.