In just eight weeks, voters will go to the polls, in what many see is a referendum on the economy and the policies of the Obama Administration. Republicans hope to take at least one house of Congress, probably the Senate, and they may be well on their way to so doing. Unless she picks up her pace, California Senator Barbara Boxer will be very vulnerable to former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Never mind that Fiorina led HP at a time when they exported jobs internationally, and that she was ingloriously fired from the computer giant. In a very recent debate, Fiorina looked polished and Boxer did not, although Boxer did a better job of answering questions and presenting her record. Still, if the public sentiment is simply for new faces, Fiorina may be able to edge Boxer out. California is not the only state where Democrats may lose ground. Indeed, it is possible that Republicans could earn the ten additional seats they need to take control of the Senate.
Democrats aren't helped by high unemployment rates and a sense that, though the economy is moving in the right direction, it just isn't moving quickly enough. The September 3 unemployment rate report showed the unemployment rate rising, when it ought to be falling, from 9.5 percent to 9.6 percent. Unemployment among African Americans rose to 16.3 percent. Private sector payroll employment went up, but by too small an amount to make a difference. Meanwhile, 114,000 temporary government workers, such as those who were working on the Census, lost their jobs.
New jobs seem to be concentrated in low-wage sectors of the economy, in health care (mostly home health aides) and food service (fast food workers). Meanwhile, the economy is short about 11 million jobs, and the unemployment rate is only low because people have dropped out of the labor force. Progress? It is good to see the unemployment rate down from its October peak of 10.1 percent. At the same time, Arizona Senator John McCain was quick to associate Democrats with high unemployment and to point out that the Obama administration predicted that the unemployment rate would fall to 8 percent if the stimulus bill was enacted.
Now, President Obama would like to implement a $100 million business tax cut to help with job creation. It's not clear that tax cuts are the best way to grow jobs. Indeed, with all the concern about deficit reduction, more tax cuts may not be the best direction to move in. Why not do simple job creation? Television interviews with people who have lost jobs and homes suggest that everything hinges on employment. The unemployment rate was less than 8 percent when President Obama took office. This election is not the time to talk about the previous administration, and about the economic mess they created. People want to know what is happening now, not what happened two years ago.
Nearly fifteen million Americans have no work. More than 40 percent of those folks have been unemployed for half a year. More people are working part time for economic reasons, because they can't find full-time work. There are more discouraged workers, people who have dropped out of the labor market because they don't think there are any jobs for them. If those folks officially reentered the labor market, the unemployment rate would spiral up to exceed 10 percent. While the Obama Administration says it would be much worse absent stimulus, and if the economy had continued to move in the direction that it had in 2007-2008. But when people go to the polls, they won't ask themselves a theoretical question. Instead, they'll ask if they are better off now than they were in November 2008, when they last voted in a national election.
I think the Obama Administration is moving in the right direction and cringe at the notion that we will have another 1994 moment, when Newt Gingrich and his "Contract on America" had enough momentum for Republicans to take both the House of Representatives and the Senate. President Bill Clinton had to govern for two years with little Congressional support and an impasse that caused government to close in 1995. With eight weeks to go until the people have their say, those who are chagrined by this economy but still support this President have lots of work to do. Those who are ambivalent should consider the alternative.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.