While her opponent spreads dark warnings of economic decay, Hillary Clinton’s campaign rhetoric has recently carried unlikely echoes of Ronald Reagan-style, Morning in America optimism.
In Michigan last week, the Democratic nominee for president accused Republican rival Donald Trump of disparaging the US as a developing country and underestimating its dynamism and innovation. “There is nothing America can’t do if we do it together,” she said, predicting the country’s best days lay ahead.
Her upbeat message is at odds with a supposedly despondent electorate. This is a contest, after all, that was supposed to be dominated by economic gloom, rising inequality, angry populism and a rejection of globalisation — sentiments that helped spawn the candidacies of Mr Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders.
On the campaign trail, Mrs Clinton acknowledges those challenges. Yet she is also seeking to tap into flickering signs of optimism about the economy that have so far received little attention.
Polling suggests there is sense to this strategy. Approval of President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy is now at a seven-year high, according to a Gallup survey. That is hardly stratospheric, but it represents a recovery from the depths of the crisis.
Minority voters, who Mrs Clinton is counting on to turn out in big numbers if she is to win, are particularly positive. Some 35 per cent of African Americans see better economic conditions a year from now, far outnumbering the 8 per cent who see deterioration, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Hispanics, 44 per cent foresee a stronger economy, while three-quarters expect an improvement in their finances.
The readings are more buoyant than those from white voters and are especially striking given the higher rates of unemployment that African Americans and Hispanics suffer. They reflect a sense — at least in some parts of the population — that there has been progress compared with the fortunes of earlier generations.
The question is whether Mrs Clinton’s cautious optimism will be vindicated by the economy’s performance. In the short term, the story has been positive. Not only is the US near full employment and the stock market at record highs, but wage growth is at its quickest since the crisis.
Compare the next president’s inheritance with that of Mr Obama in 2009, when the US was in the throes of its worst postwar crash — or indeed of Mr Reagan, who took power in a period of endemic inflation and unemployment — and you can see why Mrs Clinton’s aides are counting on a beneficial economic tailwind. Juxtapose America’s performance against the clouded prospects for Europe or China and the case becomes stronger
Yet Mrs Clinton faces two challenges. While appealing to America’s self-worth has been a reliable strategy for presidential candidates, she is by no means a natural salesperson.
Her wonkish, detail-strewn speeches can be difficult to digest and she lacks Mr Reagan’s ability to make hearts soar — or indeed the oratorical talents of her husband or Mr Obama.
More importantly, troubling longer-term trends that have helped make the current election so unpredictable have not suddenly evaporated.
Despite the punchy US jobs growth, economists at the Federal Reserve have been marking down their longer-term growth outlook. Productivity, which is critical to generating sustainable income growth, has fallen for three straight quarters. The gears of social mobility have become rusty and growth remains unevenly distributed across the country.
Mrs Clinton’s policy agenda is still sparse when it comes to the productivity challenge — in part because there remains insufficient understanding of what has gone wrong.
The $275bn infrastructure spending plan she proposes would be helpful — if it wins congressional support — but it can go only so far. Some economists believe she should put forward bolder ideas to address the drag on innovation and dynamism resulting from the swelling market power of vast corporate incumbents.
If Mrs Clinton wins in November, it will in part be thanks to her opponent’s own mis-steps. But it will also be because she has managed to sell an essentially positive view of America’s prospects to a diverse cross-section of society in the midst of a patchy recovery. If America’s rebound fails to live up to the sales pitch, the next president may face yet another crop of populist challengers.
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