Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 243,000 net jobs were created in January, surpassing most expectations. Which was great news for everyone ... except the Republican Party.
Republicans across all strata of the party establishment have made no secret that their primary political goal is making Barack Obama a single-term president. Their strategy for doing so has been fairly evident: paint Obama as an “anti-growth,” “anti-business” and “job-killing” president to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the economy.
The recent economic news, however, underscores the extent to which the Republican narrative has become increasingly divorced from reality. With the United States now entering its second year of job creation, the Dow Jones up 194 percent from its 2009 low, and unemployment consistently trending down, this story suffers from something of a credibility deficit.
Not that Republicans have any intention of abandoning it. Focusing on high unemployment is good strategy (“It’s the economy, stupid!”): Not only does the presidential approval rating appear at times to be strongly correlated with the unemployment rate, but history suggests that unemployment has great bearing on the outcomes of presidential re-election efforts. Only one president since WWII has been re-elected with an unemployment rate of over 6 percent (ironically, that president was Reagan, and the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent).
According to the latest BLS report, unemployment is at 8.3 percent and declining. If job creation continues at a steady clip, that rate could very well be in the mid-7 range by the November elections. While mid-7 percent unemployment doesn’t quite put the president in comfortable territory, it certainly undermines attacks against him, especially given the initial severity of the recession.
Republicans have nonetheless asserted that the President’s policies have stymied growth; his regulatory efforts and intentions to increase taxes, they argue, have scared businesses from making expansionary capital and labor investments. But at best, this line of reasoning suffers from a sin of omission. At worst, it’s patently false.
First, it ignores the extent to which the recovery has been hampered by international factors far from the President’s direct control. The most severe and persistent of these is the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, which has weighed heavily on U.S. markets and induced cautious behavior among domestic firms. Further, foreign supply shocks from the Japanese tsunami and rising energy prices from disruption in the Middle East have taken their toll on American retailers and manufacturers.
The second — and more damning — flaw in the Republican narrative is that it conveniently disregards the economic uncertainty created by Republican-induced congressional gridlock. Three years of partisan bickering in Congress have taken a heavy toll on Americans’ faith in political institutions, and consequently, investors’ faith in the future of the American economy. Repeated failure to achieve consensus on necessary economic fixes has led businesses to proceed carefully as the operations of our government are cast more deeply in doubt.
Consider the brief economic stall in August 2011. That month saw no net increase in jobs — an outcome Republicans blamed squarely on the president (private sector jobs actually grew, but the overall number was skewed downward by public sector layoffs and a temporary strike of 45,000 Verizon workers). Much of that month’s hiccup, though, was a product of the debt ceiling debate. Republicans’ brinksmanship led to fears that the United States would default on its debt obligations; Standard & Poor’s subsequently downgraded the U.S.’s credit rating for the first time in history. The markets dropped precipitously, and businesses scaled back plans for expansion until some semblance of order was restored. This was a manufactured crisis, and had Republicans not turned an otherwise routine procedure into a political standoff, August growth would have likely been much more robust.
The debt ceiling debate is just one of many instances in which the Republican Party has refused to constructively work with Democrats. Be it healthcare reform, judicial appointments, environmental protection, financial reform — the list goes on — they have repeatedly clung to dogma at times when the American people sought compromise. Consequently, Congressional approval has sunk to all-time lows, at one point ranking less popular than Hugo Chavez, the United States becoming a communist nation and Paris Hilton.
And in case you think Americans’ disapproval of Congress is an even-handed rebuke to both parties — think again. While nearly two thirds of Americans say that the President has tried working with Congress, less than one third believe that Congressional Republicans are trying to reciprocate.
Congressional gridlock only exacerbates our nation’s economic woes. It destroys confidence and slows recovery; it fosters cynicism, not optimism. After all, how likely are businesses to expand if they are unsure whether or not the government will be functioning the next week?
Unfortunately, Republicans have every incentive to refuse to collaborate: The more the economy recovers, the less likely they are to achieve their “number one” political goal. To be clear, my argument is not that Republicans are intentionally sabotaging economic recovery to diminish the president’s re-election prospects. But I do suggest that their actions demonstrate a clear willingness to put political gain over good governance.
Their obstinacy, however, isn’t just bad for our political system — it’s bad for our economy. Consistency may be the key to recovery, but not if our government is consistently dysfunctional.
David Murdter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.