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“It’s the economy, stupid,” the James Carville slogan that helped the first would-be-president Clinton to win the White House, is one of my favourite political lines. But for the first few months of America’s most exciting presidential race in decades, economic issues seemed overshadowed by commander-in-chief questions such as the war in Iraq and national security, and more emotive subjects such as religion, immigration and the family lives of the candidates.

As the subprime crisis grew into a broader credit crunch and began to shake up some of America’s most illustrious financial institutions, that seemed strange to an economic determinist like me. But now that the malaise is spreading from Wall Street to Main Street, the economy is again emerging as a dominant election theme.

As John Harwood pointed out on the New York Times website, the specific economic troubles America faces right now are a challenge to the orthodoxies of both parties. The Republicans need to square the current need for government action with their laissez-faire gospel. For the Democrats, the catch is that the stimulus package most of them are advocating today sits uneasily with the “Rubinomics” creed of deficit reduction that had become the party’s reigning philosophy.

So far, the best one-liner to be inspired by America’s economic woes is this zinger from Mike Huckabee’s campaign: “I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off.” Huckabee’s quip, aimed squarely at corporate dreamboat Mitt Romney, is all the more noteworthy for coming from the Republican side of the aisle.

This anti-plutocrat note is a more natural theme for the Democrats and, sure enough, it has become the signature issue for John Edwards. The silver-tongued former trial lawyer has chosen to run from the left, but even micro-targeted, rigorously centrist Hillary Clinton has started to talk about how the economy isn’t working equally well for all Americans.

One casualty of this bi-partisan, recession-inspired suspicion of the super-rich could be the man a lot of Wall Street is rooting for – even though he has yet to throw his hat into the ring. Gotham mayor – and self-made billionaire – Mike Bloomberg has been flirting with an independent bid for the White House for months. By and large, New Yorkers have been indulgent, but this week brought a chorus of scoldings, some of them directly aimed at his extraordinary fortune.

The leftwing Village Voice was the most shrill, depicting an imagined campaign badge with the tagline “Rich guy for president”. Even the upmarket New Yorker, published by the luxury-loving house of Condé Nast, observed sharply that “if Bloomberg feels like it, he can put a presidential run on his Amex card”. This was not meant as a compliment. The essay, written by New Yorker editor David Remnick himself, concluded with the admonition: “A man with Bloomberg’s sense of noblesse oblige should know there is something unseemly about waltzing into the presidential race, or even hinting at it, for no reason more compelling than that he can afford to pay the bill without flinching.”

If you live in a “tall poppy syndrome” country, this resentment of the billionaire class may seem unremarkable to you. But it is a little surprising in post-war, or at least post-1960s, America. As one fund manager (a Barack Obama supporter) told me recently, the great thing about America for him is that if you are rich, people hope to emulate you. In his native Europe, he felt, the default attitude was resentment. Consider Donald Trump, who has built new a career as a media celebrity by assuming the persona of an obnoxious yet somehow admirable billionaire. Now, though, the mood is changing.

Economists have come up with a few reasons, beyond the sin of envy, why other people’s money might bother us, particularly in a downturn. In Falling Behind, his 2007 book on income inequality, Cornell University professor Robert Frank discusses positional goods and how our own perceived well-being is related to that of our neighbours. He cites a study of sisters by David Neumark and Andrew Postlewaite who looked at what factors accounted for their decision to work outside the home. The most important variable the research found was their husbands’ relative income: a woman whose sister’s husband earned more than hers was 16 to 25 per cent more likely to seek her own paying job.

In the end, I suspect America’s billionaires, and its aspirational culture, will survive both the election race and the economic downturn. But the combination of the two does make it natural to ask, in the great phrase of the Russian revolutionaries, “Who is to blame?” One danger is that politicians and the public will turn on the easiest target of all – foreigners. Immigrants, who deserve much credit for the US’s economic success, have already taken a beating. Other countries might be next. The sovereign wealth funds of the Middle East and Asia have rescued Wall Street from its own excesses over the past few months. When it gets noticed on the campaign trail, that good deed may not go unpunished.

Chrystia Freeland is the FT’s US managing editor


More columns at www.ft.com/freeland

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