GOP to use economy as midterm weapon

Greg Nash

House Republican leaders are increasingly confident the economy will be a winning issue for their party in the 2014 midterm elections.

Republicans believe they can exploit the underlying weakness of the job market and argue voters should expect a better economic recovery than they are seeing under President Obama’s watch.

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They hope this argument, coupled with repeated attacks on the healthcare law, will play into the fatigue voters historically display toward incumbent presidents during their second term.

The GOP has been relying on the unpopularity of Obama-Care as a central campaign theme, but asked on Tuesday about the party’s platform in 2014, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) began by citing the economy.

“It’s going to be about the issue of jobs, and when you look at it, the American people have a right to continue to be asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ” he said, returning to his favored refrain for the Obama presidency. “The president has been in office now for almost five years. It’s time for the president to admit that his policies are not working.”

The GOP messaging comes as Senate Democrats have expressed confidence a rising economy will help them retain their upper chamber majority.

Republicans look at the same data and come to a different conclusion: Voters are becoming convinced Obama’s policies, from the healthcare law to regulations on the environment and labor, are holding back the economic recovery.

Boehner used a private House conference meeting on Tuesday to tout new polling that suggests voters now blame Obama more than former President George W. Bush for the state of the economy — a critical change from a little more than a year ago, when Obama cruised to reelection.

After the meeting, Boehner and other top Republicans seized on the disappointing December jobs report to renew their long-standing attacks on the president’s policies. 

“This Obama economy has lasted long enough,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House majority whip. “Now is the time for the president to change course.”

The report released by the Labor Department shows the economy added just 74,000 jobs in December, far fewer than the nearly 200,000 that economists were expecting. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent — the lowest in five years, but the fall was attributed to frustrated job seekers leaving the workforce rather than people gaining jobs.

The data muddied an economic picture that had appeared to be brightening significantly heading into 2014 and has spurred Democratic optimism. Economic growth advanced at a faster-than-expected clip during the third quarter of 2013, the stock market has risen to record highs, and consumer confidence and spending had recovered from slumps caused by the government shutdown in October.

“I think there was excessive optimism there,” said Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Even if we were at 200,000 jobs, that’s still not fast enough to dig us out of the hole we were in.”

 Inside the GOP meeting, Boehner cited a new survey by GOP pollster David Winston and said the administration had reached a “turning point” after five years in which Obama had successfully “passed the buck” by blaming his predecessor for the nation’s economic woes. Republicans, he argued, now have the upper hand when it comes to the economy.

“For the first time, a majority of Americans now say they believe the troubles in our economy are more the result of the policies of the present than the policies of the past,” Boehner said, according to prepared remarks.

The Speaker showed slides illustrating the numbers. After Obama’s 2012 reelection, according to Winston’s polling, 53 percent of voters said “policies of the past” were causing the nation’s economic problems, while 44 percent blamed policies “of the present.” Polling in November 2013 found those numbers largely reversed; 41 percent blame the policies of the past, while 49 percent blame current policies.

Shierholz said that, while the labor market remained weak, Republicans should be careful about seizing on a report that might have been distorted by seasonal employment factors and the impact of bad weather in December.

“Even I don’t think underlying growth is 74,000 jobs,” she said. “December is always a weird month.”

But while the number might be revised upward in subsequent months, nobody should be cheering, Shierholz said. 

“We are definitely still in a sluggish recovery 4.5 years after the recession ended,” she said. “Job growth will pick up a little this year but not that much.”

Shierholz placed the blame largely at Congress’s feet, arguing for another infusion of fiscal stimulus through infrastructure investment and aid to states — two items all but dead in the Republican-controlled House. 

The Senate on Tuesday failed to defeat a Republican filibuster of an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, and the House has no plans to act on its own plan.

Absent congressional action, Obama said before a Cabinet meeting that he would use “a pen and a phone” to try to help the economy — a pen for executive action and a phone to forge partnerships with the private sector and nonprofits.

“So overall, the message to my Cabinet and that will be amplified in our State of the Union is that we need all hands on deck to build on the recovery that we’re already seeing,” Obama said. “The economy is improving, but it’s in need of improving even faster.”