Romney's supporters are giddy about the newest unemployment statistics, which indeed seem unfavorable to Obama's reelection prospects. Only 69,000 jobs were created in May. Unemployment has climbed from 8.1 to 8.2 percent in a month.
Ever since the financial collapse, American voters have seen the economy as the most pressing issue. This priority was most pronounced immediately after the crash and in time to help Obama win the presidency in 2008. This time, focus on the economy might hurt him.
Although Obama protests that he is still struggling against a recession he inherited three and a half years ago, even many of his supporters remember his bold promises and are disappointed in his performance. Democrats ominously warned that without the 2009 stimulus, unemployment would reach 9 percent or so -- which it still proceeded to reach even with the stimulus.
The 2009 "green shoots" talk, the Super Bowl ads touting the nationalized auto industry's comeback, optimism about the recovery just months ago -- pundits are wondering if any of it will matter to fence-sitters in November, especially those with shaky job situations. Many groups that have been hit especially hard -- African-Americans and the youth -- tend to be Democratic constituencies. Last September the Labor Department reported that black Americans suffered the worst joblessness rate in 27 years. Depending on what's measured, between 12.1 percent and 16.9 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are out of work. Many of these folks won't vote Republican, but some will probably stay home.
It is indeed time for a serious national debate on the economy. Economic fundamentals can make or break a society. Economic growth is a matter of life or death. Millions of Americans are suffering.
Unfortunately, the two political parties do not offer very different approaches. The rhetoric varies, but even here the differences are overblown. Both sides preach "energy independence" -- which is doublespeak for energy isolationism. Both sides want health care guaranteed to patients with preexisting conditions, so long as customers are forced to buy private insurance.
Despite conventional wisdom, both sides even favor approximately the same fiscal policy. All that drama in last year's ridiculous budget debate was over about 2 percent of the deficit. Whoever won or lost made no difference to America's economic health five years down the line.
And consider monetary affairs. After the boom, bust, bailouts, and expansion of the Federal Reserve's powers, the long-neglected mystery of monetary policy finally became a national issue. But both sides of the political elite favor the same approach to this crucial question, evidenced by Barack Obama's reappointment of George W. Bush's Fed chief, Ben Bernanke.
While Republicans emphasize tax cuts for some groups and increased defense spending, and Democrats stress tax cuts on other groups and increased social spending, both sides agree with the main premises of Keynesianism. The blogosphere erupted over Romney's concession to a core principle of progressive economics:
If you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget that would shrink GDP more than 5 percent. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I'm not going to do that, of course. What you do is you make adjustments on a basis that show, in the first year, actions that over time get you to a balanced budget.
Even those who agree with this must acknowledge that Americans will be deprived of anything approaching a deep discussion over economics in Romney's exchanges with Obama. Lincoln-Douglas debates they will not be. Anyone who thinks something is radically wrong with the status quo has nowhere to turn.
Today's focus on jobs and the economy is a reversion to the modern trend. Ever since Bill Clinton won in 1992, the conventional wisdom has been: "It's the economy, stupid." Even though presidents have long been blamed for their predecessors' messes and credited for economic progress they had no hand in, the pocketbook has generally motivated American voters.
But back in 2004 and 2006, something unusual happened -- most voters weighed other principles over their economic interest. A late 2005 Gallup poll found the Iraq war to be the hottest issue. In 2006, Democrats won Congress despite overall positive news on the economy. It was very inspiring. Voters had had enough of endless war, power grabs, torture, and human rights abuses.
Not that this referendum made a big difference. The Iraq war sputtered along, following Bush's timetable into the Obama years. Congressional Democrats predictably sold out civil liberties and rubberstamped Bush's illegal wiretapping. Obama has only aggrandized presidential war powers.
But at least in 2004, 2006, and 2008, the opposition party pretended to take very different positions on essential issues previously neglected on the national scene. Today, in contrast, the two sides agree that the economy should take center stage, and they essentially concur on national security policy anyway. We can only expect vacuous talking points: "He is being soft on Iran." "I killed Osama bin Laden."
This makes today's superficial focus on the economy all the more tragic. National elections could be an opportunity to discuss the issues that determine the kind of society we have. Questions over taxation, inflation, and social spending are indeed important, but the rhetoric is frequently disingenuous and the fundamentals are never addressed. Meanwhile, we don't get any meaningful discourse on topics like preemptive war, covert operations, indefinite detentions, mistreatment of war captives, presidential power, surveillance, and America's crazed addiction to defense spending, to say nothing of the militarization of domestic police, the drug war, and the prison system.
Surely, if the two parties took up these issues, they'd still be posturing. But we could at least claim to live in a country whose leaders pretend to care about basic human rights concerns enough to bother debating them.