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If the Economy's Doing So Well, Why Do Voters Think He's Doing Such a Lousy Job?

Greeted with the usual histrionics by the press (exceeds expectations! second straight month of strong growth!), today's jobs report indicates that 288,000 jobs were added to the economy in April. Is the economy about to bail Bush out politically?

Not likely. First, let's put these numbers in perspective. Adding 288,000 jobs, while excellent by recent standards, actually remains below the administration's own job growth projections of 306,000/month, made by the CEA when the 2003 tax cuts were passed one year ago. So far they've only hit that figure in one month (last month) and they continue to be well on track for an extraordinary negative job growth record over the course of Bush's administration. In addition, recent job growth has, so far, failed to alter the stagnation in wage and salary growth that currently afflicts the labor market. (For more detail on all this, see the Economic Policy Institute's excellent Job Watch site.)

Second, let's look at the numbers from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted May 1-3--that is, right after the month when the 288,000 jobs were added. Key findings from the poll are well-summarized by the Journal's John Harwood:

[Poll] results reflect a mood closer to the unsuccessful 1992 re-election campaign of the current president's father than to prevailing sentiment during Bill Clinton's successful bid for a second term in 1996. Only 42% say they are better off than four years ago, compared with 33% who say they are worse off and 23% reporting "about the same." Pluralities of political independents, swing voters and senior citizens say they have become worse off under Mr. Bush.

Voters remain skeptical [about the economy]. Disapproval of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy, 53% to 41%, represents the weakest showing of his presidency. After months of high-profile discussion of job losses, the proportion of Americans who expect better times in the next year has fallen to 42% from 50% in January. By 51% to 40% voters say Mr. Bush's tax cuts were too large, while a 63% majority shrugs off recent stock-market gains as benefiting "only businesses and investors," not "nearly all Americans."

The problem for the administration is that voters respond mostly to the economic situation on the ground, not "good" economic statistics. Economic growth in 1992, for example, was pretty good--close to what we are experiencing this year--but that didn't help Bush's father much.

Another example, less widely-known, is 1994 and its comparison to 1996. 1994 was actually quite a a good year not just for economic growth, but also for job growth--better, in fact, than 2004 is likely to be. In March of 1994, the economy added 468,000 jobs and in April, 357,000 jobs; about 3.9 million jobs were added over the year as a whole. But wage decline and income stagnation continued during that year, economic pessimism failed to lift and, as a result, the incumbent Democrats never got the lift from the economy's performance that they thought they would.

In contrast, in 1996, not only were overall economic and job growth good, but the labor market was also delivering strong wage and income growth. As a result, economic optimism soared, starting in the spring of that year, helping Clinton to an easy re-election victory.

All this suggests that Bush will continue to be in trouble on the economy until and unless it starts performing like the mid-90's Clinton economy. And don't hold your breath on that one.

Comments

The message that should be communicated to voters:

Bottom line on the improvement in the job picture under Bush: too little, too late. Grading on straight performance or on the curve, the man has failed miserably. Promoting Bush to an additional term would be succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Or something like: "When was your last raise? How big was it? When do you expect your next one? If your answers to these questions were "I don't remember, too damned small, and not anytime soon", you can thank President George Bush and the entirely Republican-controlled federal government, especially as your boss flies by in his new luxury SUV because his profits are up so much. Have fun paying 40% more on average for your kids' health coverage."

Everyone forgets that the public has such low expectations for Bush, as does the media. When he apologized for Abu Gharib, the public acted like they had been touched by Jesus. And again, the same thing happens with the economy. The more the media shrieks about the economy, and the more fatigued the public gets about the horrors in Iraq, the more likely they are to support Bush based on the job numbers.

I don't see that at all, James. The media cheering squad has been talking up the recovery since last Fall, and it hasn't penetrated public consciousness yet. The job numbers might be the thing to finally do it if they're perceived as "real" (which they never were in 1992) and ongoing. But, so far, people appear to remain resistant -- partly because of the three years that preceded this, but maybe for some deeper reason. Is it possible the uneven quality of the Bush policies -- the radical redistribution to the upper 10% -- makes it an unevenly perceived recovery? Even if the economy is going well by standard measures, the percentage of the electorate truly feeling the benefit is too small to having beneficial effects at the ballot box.

I think that the public is eager to turn to a soft and safe cushion after the past month. Believing the economy is fantastic may be that cushion. I think that the lack of jobs with real wages or benefits, and the high gas prices and rising food prices is one reason that the cynicism and wariness remains, but with the way the media manages to guilt-trip people into believing that all this is necessary because of "the war on terra", I don't know how much longer the public doubts will last.

A former economics professor stated that people vote almost exclusively with their pocketbook. Those former professionals that have had to take McJobs will not support the President again. When gas prices reach $2.25 a gallon (in Texas) folks will be ready for a change. When seniors realize they can still get drugs cheaper in Canada, they'll send George packing. When the youth of America realize they've been handed a bill for a useless war, all for the benefit of the priveledged few. . ., well, it won't matter cause they don't vote anyhow.

I realize this is a complete change of subject.....Ruy, do you ever cover opinion polls from other countries? Is there any polling information from Iraq? I am very curious about how the prison abuse crimes are affecting the attitude Iraqis have toward the occupation. Also I'd like to see some polling results for Americans, too when they become available.
Thanks for all the ineresting articles .

Have fun with your couple of hundred dollars of federal tax rebate and your many hundreds of dollars of property tax increase. My wife and I bought a house two and half years ago. Our property taxes have increased by 1300 dollars in that time. This is no McMansion in the swanky part of town. Its a nice, quiet, typically middle-class, suburban neighborhood. Integrated, well-kept up, a nice place to live. $1300 in two and a half years. Meanwhile, services decrease and the states continue to struggle. Can't tax the rich, you know. They might get angry. Can't make the corporations pay taxes at all, they might take the jobs overseas...oh, they did that.

As many may have already heard, 62% of corporations that made over abillion dollars in profit last year paid NO TAXES AT ALL. Want to know the name of one of those corporations?

Halliburton.