Recession is the real danger for Democrats

Everyone acknowledges that inflation is the biggest political threat to Democrats this year. But the bigger threat to Democrats would be a recession — if not this year, then in the next two years.

The two economic problems are connected. In order to curb inflation, the federal government has to slow down the economy and keep it from overheating. That is usually not done with fiscal policy (taxing and spending, which are controlled by the president and Congress). It’s usually done with monetary policy, which is primarily the responsibility of the Federal Reserve.

Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, acknowledges that responsibility. Powell said last week, “Inflation is much too high. … We have both the tools we need and the resolve it will take to restore price stability on behalf of American families and businesses.”

What are those tools? Principally, the power to set interest rates. The Fed is planning seven interest rate hikes this year. It just raised rates by half a percentage point, the largest rate hike since 2000, and it’s planning to raise rates several more times this year.

Raising interest rates is a notoriously blunt tool. Curbing borrowing, spending and investment will certainly slow down the economy and push prices down. But it could also throw the economy into recession. We’ve just had one quarter of negative growth — the first quarter of this year, when the economy shrank 1.4 percent. A second successive quarter of negative economic growth would officially define a recession.

Democrats do not tolerate recessions. The modern Democratic Party was defined by former President Franklin Roosevelt as a party devoted to the cause of protecting U.S. workers from economic calamity. A Democratic president who allows a sharp rise in joblessness is betraying his party’s principles just like a Republican president who raises taxes.

The U.S. has experienced 11 recessions since 1950. All of them, save one, began under Republican presidents. The exception was in 1980 under former President Carter. Carter paid a bitter political price. He almost lost the Democratic nomination to former Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), and he was defeated for a second term.

The Federal Reserve System is an independent agency — independent, that is, of political controls. Powell was first appointed to the Fed by former President Obama, raised to the chairmanship by former President Trump and reappointed by President Biden, and he was just reconfirmed by the Senate with a solid bipartisan majority (80 to 19).

The president of the United States is exquisitely sensitive to political pressure. Every president in office when a recession starts has to pay a political price.

Former President Reagan got elected in 1981 at a time of hyperinflation — 13.5 percent. (The current inflation rate is 8.3 percent.) The Federal Reserve under Chairman Paul Volcker acted boldly and decisively, raising the prime interest rate to an unheard of 21 percent. (The current rate is 1 percent.) It worked. Inflation dropped to 4.3 percent, and Reagan was reelected by a landslide.

The country did suffer a painful recession in 1982 when unemployment reached 10.8 percent, the highest level of unemployment since the 1930s (a record that stood until the pandemic recession of 2020, when unemployment reached 14.7 percent). Republicans did pay a political price for the 1982 recession, losing 26 House seats in the 1982 midterm. But that was about average for a president’s party since World War II and better than expected for a president’s party during a recession.

What held Republicans’ losses down in 1982 was a powerful campaign theme articulated by Reagan: “Stay the course!” It worked because voters knew that Reagan had defined a course. He told the country in his first speech to Congress in February 1981, “The taxing power of government must be used to provide revenues for legitimate government purposes. It must not be used to regulate the economy or bring about social change.”

What’s Biden’s plan? He came closest to defining it when he said, “My plan is to lower everyday costs for hardworking families and lower the deficit by asking large corporations and the wealthiest Americans to not engage in price gouging and to pay their fair share in taxes.”

Sounds reasonable, particularly in contrast to what Biden called “the ultra-MAGA plan put forward by congressional Republicans to raise taxes on working families, lower the incomes of American workers, threaten sacred programs like social security, Medicare and Medicaid” and give tax breaks to “big corporations and billionaires.” MAGA, or “Make America Great Again,” is Trump’s theme. The Biden plan is “not Trump.”

It worked in 2020. With Trump now taking control of the Republican Party, maybe it will work again.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Biden Democratic Party Economy of the United States Federal Reserve Inflation interest rate hikes Jerome Powell Jerome Powell Jimmy Carter Reagan Recession fears Ronald Reagan The Fed

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