Growing from the middle out: the US economy in Obama’s second term

The US president needs to focus not just on employment per se but on creating good jobs.

The US economy has made a remarkable turnaround since 2008, moving from losing 800,000 jobs per month in the winter of 2009, to adding over 150,000 jobs per month over a two-year period. This shift from massive job losses to steady job gains occurred because of the decisive actions of policymakers who implemented a combination of monetary and fiscal policies in 2008 and 2009.

But while the economy has been in recovery since June 2009, the level of output continues to be significantly below potential, and as a result unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, remains unacceptably high. In his campaign, Obama made the case that the economy "grows from the middle out". Now, as president, he gets to work with Congress anew to realise that vision.

While the economics are fairly clear – and leading economists tend to be in broad agreement about this agenda – the politics are much more complex. The Democrats made significant victories in November’s election, keeping the presidency and increasing their seats in the Senate; however, the election also put Republicans in control of the US House of Representatives for the next two years.

It’s worth noting that while many of the policies implemented in response to the recession had a history of bipartisan support, Washington’s highly polarised political environment has meant that support for these efforts is now almost exclusively among Democrats. If he wants to see stronger improvements in the labour market, Obama will have to spend the next two years mitigating this gridlock and finding common ground.

Looking beyond the immediate problem of the fiscal cliff, Republican leaders in the House are unlikely to have any appetite for expansionary fiscal policy. Yet the president made the argument during the campaign that we ‘grow from the middle out’ – he now has to make this concept real, and lay out the specific policies that will accomplish this goal. He needs to focus not just on employment per se but on creating good jobs, with decent pay and benefits, and on the economic wellbeing of families, ensuring that every job is a good, pro-family job, and that families have the support they need.

Nearly half of all US workers do not have the right to take a sick day when they or a family member is ill, which creates enormous stress and anxiety for families. The typical US family paying for childcare spends about 13 per cent of their total family income on that care; families that need to pay for elderly care find that can be very expensive as well. Increasing funding for childcare and home health aids and other supports so that ageing Americans can live independently would not only help to support employment but would, in effect, boost the incomes of families who struggle to afford care. Similarly, focusing on policies that allow workers to balance work and family would show that the Obama administration truly understands what it means for families now that women are more typically than not also a family breadwinner.

While these issues are not currently at the top of the agenda, the president could begin to use the power of the bully pulpit to focus on increasing the net income of families, alongside policies to boost job creation and reduce unemployment, as this is the first step towards raising living standards more generally. These issues are ones that resonate especially strongly with women and Latino voters, although surveys show that the agenda around work and family resonates with conservative voters as well.

Another way to make real the idea of middle-out economics is to focus attention on America’s capacity to be a global leader in innovation and production. Over his first term, Obama put manufacturing and boosting exports at the top of his agenda, and the fact that he was unwilling to allow the US auto industry to die was a key component of his re-election campaign. Rebuilding US manufacturing should remain a key plank of our national investment strategy, and this includes making sure that any corporate tax reform follows the agenda that the president has already laid out, discouraging offshoring, encouraging domestic production, and stopping tax advantages for the use of debt over equity.

Critical to this strategy is tapping into the foundation laid by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in green technologies, such as through the production of components for solar and wind power generation as well as innovations in battery and other technologies. While there are certainly political hurdles, the president can make the compelling argument that these investments will improve US economic competitiveness and grow the economy over the long term, which resonates with the public. Furthermore, the administration could pursue a competitive dollar strategy, which would make US exports more affordable and would not necessarily require congressional action.

With President Obama winning a second term, he has a mandate to build on the successful policies of the first term. Putting the middle class at the core of what makes the economy grow, as he did during the campaign, would be a good place to start. Americans re-elected Obama because they believe he will do a better job bringing them a strong economy and – in no small part – because he recognises that a strong economy starts with them.

Heather Boushey is a visiting fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC. A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of IPPR’s journal Juncture.

Barack Obama delivers a speech on the economy at the Daimler Detroit Diesel engine plant. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.