Policy: Economy

Amid distractions, sharp focus on economy could boost GOP

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Politics,Opinion,Congress,Byron York,Columnists,Barack Obama,Republican Party,2014 Elections,Campaigns,Economy,Magazine

Most Americans think the economy is still bad and that President Obama is doing a poor job handling it.

With unemployment at 6.6 percent, and only that low because millions of frustrated, jobless workers have left the labor force entirely, issues that consume media attention -- like whether a shop-owner should be forced to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple -- will inevitably fade in importance compared to the economy when voters go to the polls in November.

Apart from the month last fall when the Obamacare computer system crashed, Obama's job approval rating has never been lower, according to a new poll from the New York Times and CBS. Just 41 percent of those surveyed approve of the job the president is doing, while 51 percent disapprove.

On the question of Obama's handling of the economy, 38 percent approve, while 57 percent disapprove.

The president's party is hit hard, too. In the so-called generic ballot question — "If election were held today, would you vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate as your representative?" — Republicans lead Democrats, 42 percent to 39 percent.

There's little doubt that economic conditions, coupled with the burdens imposed on millions of Americans by Obamacare, are behind the Democrats' troubles now, and most likely in November, too.

What is unclear is whether Democrats are fully aware of the peril. Of course, savvy candidates and strategists are, but the new Times poll shows that, as a whole, Democrats have a far more positive view of the economy than everyone else.

The pollsters asked respondents to rate national economic conditions as very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad.

Sixty percent of Democrats said economic conditions are fairly good or very good, while just 33 percent of independents and 17 percent of Republicans said the same.

Note that in each group, most who said economic conditions are good chose the "fairly good" option; very few, even among Democrats, said "very good."

In addition, 72 percent of Democrats approve of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to just 33 percent of independents and 8 percent of Republicans. (Obama's overall approval rating on the economy is 38 percent.)

Numbers like that reflect a mindset among Democrats that could have a significant effect this November. If Democrats have talked themselves into believing the economy is better than it is, they are less likely to demand candidates who will concentrate relentlessly on the economy. And that will produce candidates who focus less, or at least less effectively, on the voting public's No. 1 concern.

Such a mindset could affect press coverage, too, in a world in which most reporters, opinion writers and editors at large media outlets are Democrats.

If many journalists see a better economy than most other Americans see, it's not surprising they might devote a disproportionate amount of coverage to, say, gay wedding cakes or the Chris Christie bridge scandal.

Of course, it's possible most Democrats do, deep inside, believe the economy is still bad, and their poll answers reflect partisanship more than anything. That's a danger for Republicans, too, who could overstate the economy's problems.

But in the bigger picture, there is a huge opportunity for the GOP this November. Large majorities in the Times poll said both parties should do more to address the needs and concerns of the middle class. Seventy-six percent of independents said the GOP should do more, while 72 percent of the same independents said Democrats should do more.

The middle class is where the votes are, and the party that does the better job of addressing "middle-class squeeze" (a term House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has taken to using frequently) will win in November.

Some Republican officeholders and conservative thinkers are devoting a lot of time and energy to coming up with policy proposals for middle-class relief, and the GOP candidates who are most open to those ideas will have a big advantage in attracting votes outside the Republican base.

By keeping their focus on the economy and embracing new ideas to extend their appeal, Republicans can build on the advantages they have now, 10 months before Election Day, while Democrats and some of their allies in the press distract themselves with side issues.

The payoff for Republicans could be huge, not only this November but as they prepare for 2016, too.

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