5 Political Lessons of the Economic Downturn

President Obama and Congress hearing it from an electorate angered by hardship.

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President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have now thrown down their respective gauntlets on the issue of the economy. Last week, when the president unveiled his new jobs plan to a joint session of Congress, the fiery tone felt at times more like that of a campaign speech than a policy pitch. And when House Speaker John Boehner released his jobs plan this week, he swung back at the president's policies, broadly criticizing "a government that offers short-term gimmicks" to encourage growth and "offers confusion to entrepreneurs and job creators." Politics are inextricably bound up in the nation's grave economic situation, and while Americans learn how to live with less, politicians have carried out their duties in a new landscape marked by frustrated voters and hyperpartisanship. Below are five important lessons that lawmakers are learning from the nation's chronic economic problems.

Unemployment Is King

Even after unemployment had climbed back above 9 percent, the policy fight of the summer wasn't about how to create jobs but whether or not America would pay its bills. That fight eroded public opinion of America's political leaders and helped illustrate the point that the public sometimes holds different priorities than lawmakers in Washington. Gallup data indicates that the economy in general and unemployment were more important problems to many Americans than the federal deficit or debt throughout the summer. "Policymakers have learned just how much unemployment resonates. It is joblessness, not the budget, inflation or other wonkiness that matters," says Justin Wolfers, associate professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of Business, in an E-mail to U.S. News.

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Social Issues Are a Sideshow

The race for the GOP presidential nomination has generated lot of buzz about Michele Bachmann's views on HPV vaccine and Jon Huntsman's belief in climate change. But according to Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, these sorts of concerns fall off the radar once a candidate enters the White House, particularly in times of economic troubles. "The bottom line in all this, I think, is that social issues matter if you're running for president and you're trying to get nominated. And once you become president, what really matters is economic issues, because you own the economy," he says.

Don't Overpromise

There is ample evidence that the president's stimulus plan added substantial numbers of jobs, helping to save the country from an even deeper and longer recession. But when the plan was unveiled, the White House had predicted that it would create nearly 3.7 million jobs, bringing unemployment down to well below 7 percent by now, and to around 5 percent by 2014. Clearly, those projections were overly optimistic, and the idea that the stimulus was a "failure" has by now become a matter of fact for the president's opponents. The Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, for example, have started a "Signs of a Failed Stimulus" initiative, in which constituents can send in photos of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signs marking stimulus projects.

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Results Are Important, but So Is Blame

In the absence of a healthy economy, politicians are trying to gain political points by blaming the other party for the nation's troubles. Republicans blame the president for having failed to fix the economy. And some Democrats, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, have accused Republicans of rooting against economic growth in the hopes of political gain.

Thus far, it would appear that Democrats have a slight edge in this area. In a recent Bloomberg survey, 45 percent of respondents said that they blame congressional Republicans for the problems in Washington, while 39 percent blame congressional Democrats or the president.