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Economy improving, not yet better

Don’t confuse momentum with levels. Both are important and sometimes they tell different stories, leading to divergent strategies.

Voters are increasingly coming to realize the economy is improving. However, they still think it’s pretty lousy. So, anxious as Democrats might be to hail the solid economic growth, exercise caution. Economic triumphalism can lead to voters deciding candidates are out of touch — or worse. 

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Make no mistake, evaluations of the economy are improving — and that momentum is psychologically and politically significant. The broadest consumer confidence indexes point to the change: Bloomberg’s Consumer Comfort index is up 20 points from its low in October 2011. 

Improvement is also evident in responses to a host of specific questions posed about the nation and individuals. In Gallup data, belief the economy is growing surged 33 points since 2008. According to Quinnipiac, the number saying the economy is in recession tumbled 13 points from its 2010 high. Pew found the number saying the economy is recovering up 15 points from 2010, while the number rating the economy as “poor” is down 13 points from its high.

ABC/Washington Post pollsters put the question in more personal terms, asking whether the respondent had begun to see an economic recovery “in terms of your own personal experience.” Positive impressions rose 13 points from the low. Even Fox joined in, with 58 percent saying they had begun to see improvement. Gallup recorded an 11-point jump in the number, saying it is a good time to look for a quality job.

Before anyone starts popping champagne corks, however, recognize that these nearly uniform positive changes mask still rather dismal assessments. Yes, the number perceiving a recovery went up, but half the country does not even see the start of improvement. The number who see the economy growing grew, but still, 59 percent sense a slowdown, a recession or even a depression. In response to a simple yes/no question, two-thirds still tell Quinnipiac we are in a recession. While the number saying it is a good time to look for a quality job is at its highest level since September 2008, just 19 percent hold that view, whereas 78 percent maintain it’s a bad time to look for a good job. Pew finds only 11 percent rating the economy positively — 89 percent are negative, with 43 percent rating the economy “poor.”

Consumer confidence indexes paint the same picture. Bloomberg’s is “up” to -34, a lot worse than the -5 posted as we went into the 2004 election. 

All this makes life complicated for Democratic politicians, especially for incumbents anxious to exclaim, “It’s working!” Even though voters still blame President Bush over President Obama for our economic problems by a whopping 26-point margin, Pew found only a third accepted the proposition that the president’s economic policies had improved the economy, while a very slightly larger 35 percent maintained those policies made things worse (the rest see no impact).

Parading up and down the campaign trail proclaiming, “It’s working; the economy is improving” when most remain mired in misery is more likely to lead voters to decide the politician making those claims is out of touch with reality than to conclude they have been wrong about their own economic experiences. Telling people they are better off than they feel rarely assuages their concerns.

With luck, improvement will continue, despite storm clouds abroad. Talking up the economy has benefits, but Democrats must walk a delicate tightrope between cheerleading and empathizing, between explaining the facts and feeling the pain, between claiming success and demanding more be done. 

The momentum of public attitudes is strong and positive, but we have not yet reached the economic Promised Land.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.