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Econobamanomic Theory

To build a Democratic future, Barack Obama needs to borrow from Bill Clinton’s past.

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Illustration by Ward Sutton  

The six-week campaign waged by Barack Obama in Pennsylvania will no doubt be remembered for many incidents that the candidate would just as soon forget. The gutter balls in Altoona. The gormless queries about whether Yuengling is “some designer beer.” The tortured backpedaling from, explanations of, and apologies for his bitter/cling faux pas. But what will stick in my own wonky mind about the contest in the Keystone State is something else entirely: It was here that Obama finally turned in earnest to the topic of the economy.

Not that he had much choice in the matter, even before Bittergate. Having been clobbered by Hillary Clinton in Ohio, particularly among blue-collar voters, Obama and his people clearly saw the importance of proving that he could talk the economy talk. So he went to Pittsburgh and trashed NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Colombian free-trade deal. He went to Wilkes-Barre and attacked Big Oil for price gouging. He went to Washington and told a group of building tradesmen, “It’s time we had a president who didn’t choke saying the word union.” He went to last week’s debate in Philadelphia and declared that he felt the pain of “a gentleman in Latrobe who had lost his job and was trying to figure out how he could find the gas money to travel to find a job.”

Now, the knock on Obama for months has been that he’s guilty of a maddening policy vagueness. That whereas Clinton has trafficked in specificity and substance, he’s stuck to vaporous theme and inspiration. But Obama’s recent economic shtick has been anything but nebulous. In fact, it has been nearly as laundry-listy as Hillary’s patented spiel. The proposals pile up, the numbers tumble out—$60 billion for infrastructure, $80 billion for middle-class tax cuts, $150 billion for green technologies—and the mind begins to reel.

Something is better than nothing, to be sure, and many of Obama’s plans strike me as perfectly sensible. What’s missing, however, is an overriding theory of the case—a powerful narrative that both frames and makes sense of the changes whipping through the economy like a Bengali typhoon. Obama may not need such a narrative to win the Democratic nomination. But without one, he’ll find himself fighting in the fall without the gnarliest club at his disposal for the bludgeoning of John McCain—and for beating back Republican charges that, just below the surface, he’s a reflexive, old-school liberal. Obama, it seems, has the right idea: Steal a page from the Clinton playbook. The problem, so far, is that he’s been pilfering from the wrong Clinton.

What everyone remembers about Bill Clinton’s race in 1992, of course, is that he focused on the economy “like a laser beam,” as he put it. They remember “It’s the economy, stupid.” What they often forget is how cohesive, compelling, and even daring was the story he told about the source of the insecurity so many voters were feeling: the story of an economy in the throes of a profound, irreversible structural transformation, driven by technology and globalization. Clinton made no bones about the pain all this would cause. He didn’t hesitate to inform workers in old-line industries that many of the jobs that had disappeared were never coming back. But Clinton also laid out an ambitious agenda to upgrade the nation’s store of human capital, enabling anyone willing to make the effort to “make change their friend.” He called that agenda Putting People First, and it played a big part in persuading voters to put him in the White House.

“Having the right narrative is just as important as having the right policies,” says Robert Reich, Clinton’s first Labor secretary and author of the 1991 book The Work of Nations, which provided the underpinnings of Putting People First. “People are confused. Half of them think the cards are stacked against them by some devious mastermind inside the Carlyle Group. The other half don’t understand enough to be that cynical. They’re looking for an explanation for what’s happening to them. If you just give them a ten-point plan, they tune out.”

It’s not quite fair to say that neither Obama nor Hillary has offered any narrative whatsoever. “But what they have isn’t an economic narrative—it’s a political narrative,” says another adviser who played a role in shaping WJC’s message. “ ‘It’s all George W. Bush’s fault. Things are bad. I’m gonna make them better. Oh, and John McCain is Bush II.’ That’s what they’ve got.”

Obama, for his part, does more than blame Dubya—his circle of censure is wider, if no less predictable and no more insightful. He puts much of the rap on trade deals lacking “enforceable labor standards” that fail to “put American workers first.” He rails at China for “dumping goods” on the United States and undervaluing its currency. He bangs on about “corporate lobbyists in Washington … writing our laws and putting their clients’ interests ahead of what’s fair for the American people.”


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