American Security: An Economy That Works for All

American Security: An Economy That Works for All
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In the second part of RealClearPolitics’ series on security issues in the 2016 campaign, we examine financial security. Part 1, a national security overview, can be read here.

For the third consecutive presidential cycle, the financial crisis that gave birth to the Great Recession will shape the outcome of an election.

Americans robbed of wealth and their confidence eight years ago, and pessimistic that either of those missing ingredients will return anytime soon, are debating throughout a rough-and-tumble primary season whether continuity, revolution, or improvisation in the White House would improve their lives.

Although experts in and out of government believe the economy is performing well, almost 8 million workers were unemployed in February, compared with 5.4 million job openings (a ratio of 14 job seekers for every 10 job openings). Wage increases remain modest. And the middle-class lifestyle considered a part of the American dream is today less attainable than in the past, according to economists.

In 2016 terms, it’s still the economy, stupid. And candidates are messaging with gusto to the financially strapped middle class.

U.S. adults believe the top three problems facing the country are the economy, dysfunctional government, and unemployment and jobs, according to a Gallup Organization survey conducted in March. Last week, Americans who identified themselves as Democrats or leaning toward Democrats running for president said they’re more confident than Republicans and GOP-leaning adults that they’ve heard “good ideas” to address big national problems (52-49 percent). 

A slow U.S. recovery after the recession ended in 2009 was painful punctuation in a longer narrative about the ebbing economic middle in America. Those at the top of the ladder, and those at the bottom, now represent larger shares of the population than at any time since at least 1971, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

When politicians from all parties lament income inequality, they agree on many of the disparities, some of the causes, and fewer proposed fixes. And the description of “outsider,” meant to identify candidates operating blissfully distant from Washington’s much-criticized gridlock, fails to address a gulf between workers and candidates when it comes to personal wealth.

Only Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist from Vermont, claims assets of less than $1 million among April’s crop of presidential contenders. Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are members of America’s multi-millionaire class. Donald Trump, with assets estimated in the billions of dollars, celebrates the inequality gap between himself and his followers as part of his celebrity-businessman brand. 

Trump, whose calls for tougher negotiations appeal to blue-collar white men who believe they lost jobs because of globalization and free trade, holds rallies in which he explicitly links “manufacturing jobs” to benefits for the “middle class.”

“I am the only candidate in this race who will bring our manufacturing jobs back,” Trump wrote in a newspaper op-ed last month. “I have been warning for decades what would happen if we didn’t confront foreign trade cheating, and sadly, my fears have come to pass … If we bring back these jobs, and close this trade deficit, we will create millions of jobs, boost government revenue, shrink our deficit, rebuild our infrastructure and communities, and send wages soaring upwards.”

Sanders is similarly caustic about the effects of free trade deals, but also withering about the culpability of the wealthy and corporations when it comes to income inequality. Sanders believes that money in politics and the influence of special interests tipped the economic playing field away from American workers over many decades, and must be overhauled in Washington before trade, tax and federal spending policies can be changed.

Clinton touts economic progress made during President Obama’s two terms, telling voters she doesn’t think the president gets enough credit for decisions he made following the financial meltdown. She describes herself as a continuity candidate who can work with (and against) Republicans in Congress to improve trade deals, enact reforms to raise taxes on the wealthy and some corporations, preserve and expand the Affordable Care Act, and increase federal spending for safety-net programs and partnerships with the private sector and academia that she believes can boost hiring. 

“I have a five-point economic plan, because this inequality challenge we face, we have faced it at other points,” Clinton said during the first Democratic debate. “It hasn’t been this bad since the 1920s.”

Cruz is a proponent of a flat tax, which he pitches to audiences as economic relief for the middle class. “My simple flat tax is the best tax plan of any of the individuals on this stage because it produces economic growth, it raises wages and it helps everyone from the very poorest to the very richest,” he argues.

Kasich, the governor of Ohio and a former House Budget Committee chairman, argues for broad tax cuts that would benefit the wealthy and corporations, and a balanced federal budget over eight years. He favors cuts in federal spending for education, transportation, job training and Medicaid, arguing Washington should transfer revenues to the states in the form of block grants.   

“In the end, you really wonder if you need a full Department of Transportation,” Kasich told AP in an interview about his economic plan. “I’m sending all the programs in the federal government back,” he said.

Obama, eager to be succeeded by a Democrat, points to more than 14 million jobs created on his watch and touts federal policies that favored the middle class over the wealthiest Americans since 2009.

“I believe that rather than double down on policies that allow a few at the top to play by their own rules, we should build an economy where everybody has a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules,” Obama said Saturday during his weekly radio address. “That's what this country is all about. That's what we've been working toward these past seven years.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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