Out on the campaign trail, there are two parallel universes when it comes to describing the economy, a Democratic reality and a Republican reality. This became especially clear this month in remarks by President Obama and an assortment of leaders of both parties, including Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who is in line to become speaker of the House if the GOP takes control in the November 2 elections.
On one side, Obama and the Democrats argue that the economy is on the mend, slowly but surely, thanks in large part to the bold actions taken by the White House and Congress over the past 19 months. These actions include the stimulus package and the bailouts of the financial industry and the auto industry. Obama says the recession was largely the fault of former President George W. Bush and his policies, and this is no time to go back. He argues that the midterm elections should be a choice between two competing visions, one that has failed (Bush's) and another that hasn't yet been given a chance to succeed (his own), not a referendum on his agenda and his leadership.
Obama's speech in suburban Cleveland last week was one of his best political addresses in a long time, as it gave voters a clear rationale for keeping the Democrats in the majority on Capitol Hill. "It's still fear versus hope; the past versus the future," Obama said Wednesday. "It's still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That's what this election is about. That's the choice you'll face in November." If Obama can keep this up, his party may stand a chance in the midterm balloting.
The other reality is being presented by the Republican leaders in Congress. They see a ripe opportunity to take control of both the House and Senate, and a fresh wave of polling backs them up. They argue that Obama and the Democrats have made the economy worse by running up vast deficits, wasting taxpayers' money, and investing too much power in the government, all the while failing to lower the unemployment rate, which has remained above 9 per cent for 16 consecutive months. And things will get even worse if Obama and the Democrats allow some or all of the Bush-era tax cuts to expire, the GOP says.
Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America, Boehner called for a rollback of nonsecurity discretionary federal spending to 2008 levels—pre-Obama—and a freeze on tax rates for at least two years, in effect rejecting any administration plan to raise taxes on the highest-income earners. "I think the president is missing the bigger point here," Boehner said. "With all of the spending in Washington, and all the uncertainty facing small businesses, including the coming tax hikes on January 1 [when the Bush-era tax cuts end], until this uncertainty and spending is under control, I don't think these [solutions from Washington] are going to have much impact."
Boehner's new visibility worries conservative activists who say he is giving Obama a convenient target as the caricature of a politician who is locked in the past and has no new ideas. But the dueling versions of economic reality are being played out in campaigns across the country from California to Pennsylvania. Each side has an element of truth in its arguments. But the latest polls indicate that it is the Republicans who will come out on top, as they benefit from voter anger and anxiety over the status quo. Equally important, Republican voters appear to be far more motivated to actually cast ballots than are the Democrats. A new survey by American University political scientist Curtis Gans finds that 4.2 million more Republicans have voted this year in statewide primaries for Senate and governor than Democrats (nearly 17.2 million to 13 million), in part reflecting the intramural battles between candidates backed by the GOP establishment and the Tea Party movement. In a historical perspective, the average percentage of eligible citizens who voted in the GOP statewide primaries (10.5 percent) was the highest since 1970 while the comparable Democratic figure (8.3 percent) was the lowest on record, Gans found.