WASHINGTON – In 1992, James Carville popularized the adage “It’s the economy, stupid.” If the economy is ailing, people tend to vote against the party in the White House. That happened in the 1992 election. A recession that started in 1990 was officially over, but it didn’t seem over to millions of Americans. They sent President George H.W. Bush into retirement. The question now is whether something similar will happen in 2016.
All eyes are on New Hampshire, but maybe we should be paying more attention to the economy. Along with the volatile stock market, recent indicators hint at a slowdown or recession. This could change the campaign’s complexion once nominees are picked. Democrats could be thrown on the defensive. Their pitch to the middle class might be blunted, as Republicans blame President Barack Obama for the slump. Without a recession, it would be harder to attack Obama’s policies.
Indisputably, recent economic releases have been downbeat. Consider. In the fourth quarter, the economy grew at a paltry annual rate of 0.7 percent. Personal spending in December was flat, as Americans saved more of their incomes. The manufacturing sector is weak, hurt by a strong dollar — which makes U.S. exports more expensive — and less oil exploration. Individually, none of these indicators is conclusive, but they are of a piece.
The good news for Democrats is that many economists (possibly most) don’t yet forecast a recession. At worst, they see a temporary pause in the expansion.
Economists Beth Ann Bovino and Satyam Panday of Standard & Poor’s say there have been 11 economic expansions — periods when production and employment are generally increasing — since World War II, averaging just over 58 months, or nearly five years, each. By this measure, the present expansion — which started in the third quarter of 2009 and has lasted 78 months — is past its prime and could be near its end.
But the S&P economists doubt that. Indeed, they argue just the opposite. “We may be, more or less, at mid-cycle,” they write, “with room to grow and the underlying momentum to do so.” Translation: With a little luck, the expansion could run another five or six years.
What’s killed most post-World War II expansions, they argue, is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to quash inflation. But there’s no evidence of runaway inflation now, they say. Indeed, they estimate that the economy is operating well below its potential output, and this limits the power of companies to raise prices. If firms raise prices too much, other suppliers will undercut them and steal market share. (Bovino and Panday estimate the “output gap” — the difference between actual and potential production — at about 3 percent of gross domestic product, worth more than $500 billion in extra goods and services.)
To be sure, the labor market — with the unemployment rate at 5 percent — seems near “full employment.” Superficially, this indicates that a tight job market could drive up wages and lead to an inflationary wage-price spiral. But this danger is minimized, say the S&P economists, because broader unemployment measures suggest the labor market is not so tight. They cite the “U-6″ measure, which includes the official unemployed, discouraged workers and part-timers who’d like full-time jobs. U-6 is now 9.9 percent; its pre-recession low was 8.4 percent in 2007.
The political implications are self-evident. If the S&P economists and other forecasters are correct — there is no recession — it will be easier for the Democratic nominee to run on Obama’s record and to credit his policies with reducing the distress of the Great Recession, which (of course) will be blamed on George W. Bush and Republicans. But if a conspicuous slowdown or recession materializes, the opposite will be true. Republicans will be better able to peddle their narrative of businesses being over-regulated, over-taxed and harassed.
One way or another, it’s still the economy, stupid.
Robert J. Samuelson writes an economics column for The Washington Post. © 2016, Washington Post Writers Group