WASHINGTON – As the U.S. presidential race picks up pace, the speeches and debates are full of character attacks, arguments on immigration and worries about national security.
But there is one glaring omission in the battle for the White House: serious talk about the economy.
On both the Republican and Democratic sides, the state of the world’s largest economy is mentioned, of course. But the exchanges in debates have mostly been about sound bites good for rebroadcast and social media, rather than serious discussion of issues.
Why such reticence to engage on a subject crucial in the past two presidential races? Aside from the dryness of the topic, the answer comes from the relative health of the U.S. economy.
“The economy is doing reasonably well, although not spectacularly well,” said Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“So it’s good enough for Republicans not to have an angle of attack, but it’s not so good as Democrats can brag about it.”
The U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to half of its peak in 2009 and now sits at 5 percent, close to full employment. The economy is growing at a modest pace, and the government deficit has shrunk.
Those are reasons, Democratic President Barack Obama says, that voters should support a Democrat to succeed him.
Certainly, the economic crisis that dominated previous presidential elections, especially in 2008 when Obama won his first term, has disappeared. And that complicates efforts by Republicans to brand Obama’s record a disaster as they woo voters.
They try nevertheless to exploit weaknesses in the Obama recovery — especially how it has not benefited everyone.
For the Republicans, said Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, “There’s no easy target, even if there’s definitely a general sense that people . . . haven’t really benefited from the recovery.”
The one issue that has voters on both sides unhappy is the weak growth in wages during the recovery, roughly half the pace that it was before the financial crisis.
Ted Cruz, running second to Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination to the White House, has tried to draw support on the issue.
“If you make your money in and around Washington, things are doing great. The millionaires and billionaires are doing great under Obama,” he said.
And another Republican hopeful, Marco Rubio, highlighted it as well: “The economy is not providing jobs that pay enough.”
Even so, the Republicans as a group, who advocate for tax cuts and economic freedom, are not at ease with making wages a political issue. Most oppose mandated increases to the minimum wage, for example, an issue the Democrats embrace.
Republicans have also tried to chip away at Obama’s record of slashing unemployment. They point to the still-high level of Americans who are unemployed and have dropped out of the workforce, which, as a percentage of the population, remains at a four-decade high.
But also grabbing this issue to make political gain is Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who argues that the real unemployment rate for Americans is over 10 percent, if one includes people forced to work part time.
Other issues pull together White House hopefuls from the two parties, making it hard for them to stand out.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Trump both oppose the huge new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, achieved late last year by Obama.
And both are against U.S. companies being able to move their official addresses offshore to lower their taxes.
Even so, the candidates so far have stuck to criticism and complaints without offering much in the way of detailed proposals.
“Taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world,” says Trump, for example.
Barry Bosworth, of the Brookings Institution think tank, said it may take several more weeks or months for real proposals on the economy to emerge.
“Neither party has any great suggestions on how to deal with the issues of employment and income growth that seem to be the dominant economic concerns of voters,” he said.
But he said their views could become clearer once the parties choose their final candidate for the November election, and that voters will pay more attention then.