This debate is about the real track record

The second presidential debate will focus on the economics of the middle classes, writes CAP's Heather Boushey.

President Obama and Governor Romney are preparing for their next big showdown in New York tonight. This debate will feature audience questions in a “town hall” format. Many Americans, including myself, will want to know who will do more over the next four years for the middle class and who will support the strongest job creation. This is the key challenge facing American and is the political territory that could be most decisive in next month’s election.

Romney will win this debate if he is able to convince the American public that President Obama’s economic policies have been a failure and that his economic plan will generate job gains. Romney claims that his economic plan will create 12 million jobs and that 7 million of them will come about as a result of his tax cuts.

But US economists, including myself, question whether Romney’s job creation claim can be believed. If anything, Romney’s 59-point economic plan will most likely push the US back into a recession. Economists estimate that, at best, it will create around 87,000 jobs in next year, or, at worse, could actually lead to the loss of anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 jobs.

Romney’s economic plan is a “jobs fail” because it is based on the same economic logic that supply-siders have been pushing on the US economy for some time now. The supply-side story is that if the government gives the wealthy back their taxes, they will invest those added funds, thus growing the economy, creating jobs, and improving middle-class incomes. In the 1980s and 2000s, policymakers did exactly that, but it didn’t work. Both eras experienced significant tax cuts aimed at higher-income households that were supposed to spur investment.

President Obama will win the debate if he runs on his record and exposes the Romney economic plan. Over the past year, the US economy has added 1.8 million jobs, which is a strong track record of solid job gains, month after month. The private sector has added jobs every month for 31 months and the unemployment rate is now where it was when Obama took office.

Jobs have come back because policymakers acted decisively. In February 2009, before he had even been in office a month, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped nearly $800bn into the U.S. economy and stopped the haemorrhaging of jobs. Later that year, the administration helped stabilize the auto industry, which has helped that sector turn itself around into a job-generating industry for 27 of the past 36 months.

If Obama can articulate his record and expose Romney’s plan, tonight’s debate will be a home run. If Romney can avoid scrutiny and run down the President’s record it, could be game on for the third and final debate.

Heather Boushey is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Senior Economist at CAP

Obama and Romney after the first debate. Photograph: Getty Images

Heather Boushey is a Visiting Fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.