Clinton And The Economy Stumble

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J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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As Clinton stumbles at the primaries’ conclusion, the economy is stumbling in 2016’s beginning. Clinton is increasingly trapped between her campaign’s and the economy’s underperformance. Desperately needing Obama’s legacy to fix her own unpopularity, she must somehow avoid that legacy’s weakest link.

Throughout the primary season, Clinton’s campaign has underperformed at best. Winning where she was supposed to, she has rarely been impressive in doing so. And twenty times she has not won.

As a result, she has not put away Sanders, or even gotten meaningful separation from him with Democratic voters. Clinton’s lead in the percentage of delegates awarded by election – not party establishment super delegates – is just 54 to 46 percent. In Real Clear Politics’ average of national polling, her lead over Sanders is even smaller – 50 to 45 percent.

She has been 2016’s presumptive nominee for years and throughout this race, yet this contest will not end until the primaries do. Before it does, Clinton will likely have to endure more embarrassments – like last Tuesday’s loss in Oregon. She will also have to divert precious money and attention from November’s even tougher race.

From any perspective, Clinton has problems and they go well beyond Sanders. She is deeply unpopular in America – including, as Sanders has shown, among many Democrats.

As troubles have mounted, she has wrapped herself increasingly in the legacy of her party’s far more popular president. Arguably it has worked, at least to the extent she has an enormous advantage in party establishment super delegates, who alone prevent her nomination fight from being as close as it should be.

Clinton’s problem here is that Obama’s legacy is far from a rose without thorns. Already she inherits his poor foreign policy record – a particularly painful area for this administration’s former Secretary of State. She has yet to feel its full effect among Democrats, who are far more sympathetic than other Americans. In November, she will.

So the last thing Clinton needs is another big Obama legacy liability. However, the economy’s poor performance – almost in sync with her primary performance – threatens to be even thornier.

That Obama’s economy has underperformed is not news. Only by constant comparison to the financial crisis has the administration sought to make it passable. Over the last seven years, real GDP growth has had average annual growth of just 1.4 percent, well less than half of its 1946-2008 average of 3.1 percent.

What Clinton does not need is 2016 underscoring this overlooked part of Obama’s legacy. However, first quarter real GDP showed barely any growth at all, coming in at 0.5 percent – its slowest in two years. Then this month came a disappointing job creation figure: April showed only a 160,000 increase – just two thirds of the previous six months’ average.

With all eyes on the Republicans, it is easy to miss seeing Clinton’s delicate position. Unpopular herself, she desperately needs the more popular Obama to attract almost half the Democratic base she has failed to secure in the primaries. To attempt to do this, she has become the keeper of Obama’s legacy.

However that legacy has serious problems – particularly outside the Democratic faithful. And when it comes to non-Democrats, on no issue is Obama’s legacy more vulnerable than the economy. The economy far outweighs Clinton’s inherent foreign policy liability in the minds of average Americans.

Unlike foreign policy, the economy’s failures are tangible and have a profound impact on their daily lives. The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and today’s bipartisan populist insurgencies were not brought on by disgust over foreign issues. They arose over domestic issues – and money ones in particular.

Yet as potentially dangerous as Obama’s economy is for Clinton, she cannot disown it without risking losing Obama.

To criticize the economy, is to criticize the man who has presided over it for more than seven years. Even to acknowledge a need for its improvement is to implicitly acknowledge its failings. Either course runs a risk of alienating Obama and his supporters.

All in all, Clinton has a huge need and host of problems when it comes to Obama. She must scrutinize very carefully what she says and how she says it between now and November. In contrast, her opponent has none of these concerns.

Donald Trump’s over-sized style perfectly fits what is already an over-sized Clinton liability. Trump’s opportunity on the economy comes from being neither Bush – who the White House has blamed the economy on for over seven years – nor Obama, who has failed to fix it for over seven years.

The author served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.