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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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