Thursday, September 6, 2012

Economy: Impossible? -- Can any president fix it? -- Sept. 6, 2012 column


On the Food Network’s hit show “Restaurant: Impossible,” Chef Robert Irvine sweeps in and transforms a failing restaurant in just two days with $10,000.

He installs new décor, menu and image, diners flock to the place, the grateful owner beams in amazement, credits roll. Viewers eat all this up; the show is in its fourth season.

We Americans love turnarounds – especially when the miracles come quickly and under budget.

Alas, there’s no TV show called “Economy: Impossible.” Nobody has invented the formula to turn around the economy quickly. Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, consumer confidence is down, and the presidential race is neck and neck.

The key question in 2012: Will voters fire President Barack Obama and hire former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to engineer the country’s economic makeover?

And that leads to another question: Does who’s in the White House affect the economy? You’d certainly think so, to hear the politicians.

Romney insists that he has the business savvy to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, although he hasn’t spelled out details. Obama blames Republicans in Congress for thwarting his plans to rebuild the economy.

Presidents are praised when the economy is going well and blamed when it’s not. Many economists think the world picture is more complicated and that the president actually has little control over economic success or failure.

Here’s Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s former top economic adviser and a University of Chicago Booth Business School professor: “I think the world vests too much power – certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general – for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government.”

Romney does have business experience, but most presidents don’t. Bill Clinton had none but George W. Bush did – and yet the economy thrived under Clinton and fell under Bush into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Still, since James Carville tacked up the sign that read “the economy, stupid” in Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1992, candidates have tried to persuade voters they can work economic miracles.

At the GOP national convention in Tampa, Republicans urged disappointed Obama voters to jump ship. Romney conceded Obama’s popularity four years ago but said, “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

His running mate, Paul Ryan, evoked the image of young, jobless Obama voters living in their parents’ basements, staring at fading Obama posters.

In Charlotte, the Democrats tried to put to rest the nagging question of whether we’re better off than we were four years ago. Clinton emphatically said the country is better off with Obama, although nobody is satisfied with the current economy.

Obama “has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it,” Clinton promised, adding, “whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election.”

Affable Clinton rebutted Republican charges one by one, including the frequent knock that Obama doesn’t believe in free enterprise and despises individual success.

“This Republican narrative – this alternative universe – says that every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made,” Clinton said.

He quoted one of the all-time great lines in American politics, from Bob Strauss, Democratic Party chairman in the 1970s, “Every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.”

Clinton insisted that Obama has the values, ideas and direction we need to build a stronger, 21st century economy – “a nation of shared opportunities, shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of community.”

But he also served up a cautionary note. In 1994, although he and his advisers felt their policies were bringing the economy around, voters couldn’t feel it, Clinton said. The result was the Republican takeover of the House for the first time in decades.

As we move through the fall, both campaigns will target the very few voters who are still undecided. Much will depend on whether these voters feel that the economy is moving in the right direction.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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