You’re Welcome for the Recovery, Say the Nation’s Politicians

GOP governors and President Obama are battling over who gets credit for the turnaround.

Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal speaks to the media on the North Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, February 27, 2012, following a meeting of the National Governors Association with US President Barack Obama. 
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Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Jan. 12, 2014, midnight

Five days be­fore Christ­mas, Flor­ida Gov. Rick Scott’s reelec­tion cam­paign re­ceived a most wel­come gift: The state’s un­em­ploy­ment rate had fallen, again, to 6.4 per­cent.

“Un­der Rick Scott, Flor­ida’s eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery con­tin­ues,” trum­peted the state Re­pub­lic­an Party.

Good tid­ings also ar­rived that day at the White House. Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced that the na­tion­wide un­em­ploy­ment rate had dipped to 7 per­cent, its low­est point in five years. Al­though he stopped short of de­clar­ing vic­tory, he made sure to tout “the pro­gress we’ve painstak­ingly made over these last five years with re­spect to our eco­nomy.”

The du­el­ing nar­rat­ives re­flect what’s likely to be a lead­ing theme of the 2014 elec­tion: the battle between the pres­id­ent and Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors for brag­ging rights over the eco­nomy.

As­sum­ing the eco­nom­ic out­look con­tin­ues to bright­en, the de­bate will be fiercest in the nine swing states won by Obama but run by GOP gov­ernors seek­ing reelec­tion — Flor­ida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mex­ico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors lay­ing claim to the re­cov­ery in­clude po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­tenders such as New Jer­sey’s Chris Christie, Louisi­ana’s Bobby Jin­dal, and Texas’s Rick Perry.

The stakes are high for the GOP, which oc­cu­pies most of the na­tion’s gov­ernor’s man­sions — 30 in all. In light of the na­tion’s dis­gust with Con­gress, the party is in­creas­ingly pro­mot­ing its state lead­er­ship.

“All across Amer­ica, Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors are do­ing what Wash­ing­ton can’t: get­ting the big things done to move our coun­try for­ward,” Christie de­clared when he was elec­ted chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation in Novem­ber.

In the nine battle­ground states, Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors were elec­ted in the tea-party wave of 2010, prom­ising to tame un­em­ploy­ment, cut spend­ing, and crack down on labor uni­ons. In some cases, their slash-and-burn ap­proaches cost them dearly, in the polls and bey­ond. Scott wore the crown of the most un­pop­u­lar gov­ernor in the coun­try from the start. Gov. John Kasich was soundly re­buked by Ohio voters when they struck down his sig­na­ture over­haul of the state’s col­lect­ive-bar­gain­ing law. In the most ex­treme back­lash, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er nearly lost his job in a re­call elec­tion just 17 months after tak­ing of­fice.

All of these gov­ernors have re­boun­ded to some ex­tent amid an im­prov­ing eco­nomy, but wheth­er they de­serve the cred­it for the im­prove­ment is an­oth­er ques­tion. Eco­nom­ic cycles are typ­ic­ally far more power­ful than any policy en­acted by a state’s chief ex­ec­ut­ive. “It’s like tak­ing cred­it for the sun com­ing up in the morn­ing,” said Dean Baker, cofounder of the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Policy Re­search.

More spe­cific­ally, of the battle­ground states run by GOP gov­ernors, Flor­ida and Nevada have seen their un­em­ploy­ment rates fall the fur­thest, but that’s hardly proof that Scott and Gov. Bri­an San­dov­al are mir­acle work­ers; it is mainly be­cause their states were the hard­est hit by the real-es­tate-mar­ket crisis, which began to give way roughly halfway through those gov­ernors’ first terms.

Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion eco­nom­ist Gary Burt­less says the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can have more of an im­pact on the eco­nomy in the short term — de­fault­ing on the na­tion­al debt, for ex­ample, would cre­ate im­me­di­ate fal­lout — while gov­ernors can make more of a dif­fer­ence long-term by nur­tur­ing a fer­tile eco­nom­ic cli­mate. He es­tim­ates that a gov­ernor near­ing the end of his or her first term ac­counts for roughly 5 per­cent of the state’s eco­nom­ic growth or fail­ure, and that na­tion­al poli­cy­mak­ing ac­counts for about 25 to 30 per­cent.

The rest comes down to the “con­stel­la­tion of in­dus­tries” in that par­tic­u­lar part of the coun­try and in that state, Burt­less said. No gov­ernor of Michigan, for ex­ample, could gen­er­ate eco­nom­ic growth amid a de­cline in de­mand for cars and a spike in fuel costs. Nor could a gov­ernor of Wash­ing­ton con­trol a drop in sales of Boe­ing’s air­planes.

“Bad things can hap­pen to good pres­id­ents and good gov­ernors, and good things can hap­pen to bad pres­id­ents and bad gov­ernors,” Burt­less said. “If a pres­id­ent takes of­fice with a re­ces­sion in the off­ing, there’s noth­ing he can do to stop it. Gov­ernors have even few­er levers to make an im­pact, es­pe­cially in just one four-year term.”

Right now, however, the GOP gov­ernors ap­pear to be tak­ing an early lead in the race to set the nar­rat­ive. One re­cent Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll found that, among Ohio voters who think the eco­nomy is get­ting bet­ter, 74 per­cent said Kasich de­served some or a lot of cred­it. Only 33 per­cent in the sur­vey said Obama de­served some or a lot of cred­it.

“Frankly, voters aren’t giv­ing Obama cred­it for much of any­thing right now,” said Nath­an Gonzales, deputy ed­it­or of The Rothen­berg Polit­ic­al Re­port. “And if his stand­ing and the gen­er­al mood of the elect­or­ate im­proves, it will only help in­cum­bent gov­ernors, be­cause voters will be less in­clined to throw people out of of­fice.” P

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