Democrats are down in the dumps. The troubled roll-out of Healthcare.gov and the public relations disaster around individual policy cancellation has eliminated the momentum Democrats enjoyed after the GOP’s shutdown debacle. And every day seems to bring another poll showing President Obama’s approval rating sinking to new lows.
What to do? As many others have pointed out, the stupidest thing to do is to panic. The problems with the ACA are fixable and are in the process of being fixed. If they are, over time the damage from the initial roll-out will dissipate. Still, the wind is out of the Democrats’ sails — is there anything that would put it back in?
Yes, there is. It’s called the “four percent solution,” and it’s a plan for tackling unemployment that doubles as a political goldmine.
Americans still care about the economy more than any other political issue. That’s almost always true when a war isn’t dominating the headlines, but new research from Joel Benenson, Obama’s pollster, confirms it today. “Our data continues to show, unequivocally, that the nation’s economic health remains voters’ overriding priority,” Benenson writes. “Even amid a cascade of news cycles focused on the Affordable Care Act, Syria, the government shutdown and the NSA, voters’ primary focus has never shifted from their economic well-being.”
If Democrats want to start making political gains, Benenson suggests, they need avoid “inside-the-Beltway political dramas that have little bearing on [Americans’] immediate well-being,” and focus on “strengthening the economy, creating jobs, investing in education, [and] promoting a living wage.”
That means they should develop a laser-like focus on issues like raising the minimum wage and stimulus measures that could growth and bring down the unemployment rate. The best way for Obama and other Democrats to recenter on these things is to commit themselves to a definite goal: the aforementioned “the four percent solution.”
The name refers to the average level of unemployment we had in 2000, the last year we were at full employment and the last year of a healthy economic period (1995–2000) when wages and incomes rose smartly and inequality actually declined. In an important new book by Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein, Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People (available for free download), they make a sustained argument for enshrining the four percent figure as an overriding national priority and putting full employment squarely at the center of the progressive agenda.
Baker and Bernstein handily demolish the various arguments against such a target — unemployment that low would cause accelerating inflation, current unemployment is mostly structuralm and so on — and detail the many economic benefits that would follow from meeting or at least approaching that target. There is probably no other economic policy that would deliver as much in terms of raising material well-being, reducing inequality and even bringing down the long-range deficit.
The excuse that voters would not buy it is simply not credible. Take a look back at some of Benenson’s data:
In a forced choice question, just 39% of voters and 23% of Independents agree: The way to get our country back on track is to get government out of the way and unleash the power of businesses and markets to create jobs by lowering taxes and eliminating needless regulations. While 59% overall and 65% of Independents agree with the alternate choice: The way to get our country back on track is to get the public and private sector working together to invest in manufacturing, technology, small businesses and education to create jobs our country needs and train our children to succeed in the new economy.
Obviously, Congress will be an obstacle here but, contrary to the Zen precept, you can’t hit the target unless you’re aiming at it.
Democrats on the fence about this aggressive growth agenda should keep in mind the probable political payoffs from getting close to full employment. Obama’s approval rating would likely go up and that, combined with economic improvements, would give them a much better chance of gains in the 2014 election. And full employment wouldn’t exactly make the Democrats a lock for the 2016 Presidential election but that, combined with the Democrats’ burgeoning demographic advantage, would make them damn hard to beat.