Job Shortage Is Kerry’s Best Bet to Unseat Bush From His
By now, the Bush family must consider jobs a four-letter word. Anemic job growth helped to sink George H.W. Bush after one term in 1992. Under his son, President George W. Bush, the employment picture is even more dismal. So dismal, in fact, that it’s the job market Democrats have most in mind when they gibe: Like father, like son, one term and he’s done.
The economy’s continuing failure to produce meaningful numbers of jobs, reinforced by other bread-and-butter concerns such as rising healthcare costs, looms as the greatest vulnerability for Bush in the general election campaign that effectively began last week.
But in seeking to survive a poor performance on jobs, this Bush has two advantages his father lacked. National security issues are more relevant today than in 1992, and John F. Kerry, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, offers a more tempting target on values and cultural issues than Bill Clinton presented against the elder Bush.
There’s no guarantee the younger Bush can overcome economic anxiety by exploiting these other issues. But it does mean that he and Kerry face an electoral environment in which the differences from 1992 are as important as the similarities.
The biggest parallel is the gloomy job market. During the four years of the first President Bush, the economy created just 2.6 million jobs. The economy generated nearly four times as many jobs during Jimmy Carter’s four years and more than six times as many during Ronald Reagan’s eight. Those contrasts helped explain why George H.W. Bush was out of a job after the 1992 election.
Job growth zoomed again under Bush’s successor. During Clinton’s eight years, the economy generated 22.7 million jobs -- the most created under any single president since the 1920s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But job growth has stalled again under the second President Bush. With the government report Friday that the economy produced just 21,000 new jobs in February, total employment is down by more than 2.2 million since he took office. Barring a miraculous recovery, Bush is fated to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to suffer a net loss of jobs over a full presidential term.
There aren’t many inviolate rules in American politics, but in an election year it’s safe to say no president wants his name plausibly placed in the same sentence as Herbert Hoover’s.
The White House blames the meager performance largely on the slowdown it inherited from Clinton (job growth was still positive, but slower, in the second half of 2000 than the first). But the job loss has persisted long after the recession officially ended in fall 2001.
Fewer Americans were working in January 2003 than in January 2002. Even fewer Americans were working in January 2004 than in January 2003. Manufacturing employment has declined in every single month of the Bush presidency.
These are not numbers that scream four more years.
Bush supporters argue that it’s unfair to blame or credit a president too much for the economy’s performance. Yet Americans have been doing exactly that for more than 200 years.
Many Democrats agree Kerry has to flesh out his own ideas for stimulating job growth (which now center on tax credits for manufacturers, grants to states, a tougher line on trade and reducing employers’ healthcare costs).
But even if Kerry holds up a blank piece of paper as his recovery plan, it will be tough for Bush to win an argument about the economy unless job growth revives.
The difference from 1992 is that this Bush has a better chance of surviving even if he loses the economic argument. One key reason: National security is much more relevant to voters today than it was then.
Americans may or may not accept Bush’s contention that we are living in an ongoing state of war that makes him a “war president.” But there’s no doubt that Americans see terrorism as a continuing threat. No one felt that way about Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991.
As a result, voters are likely to place much more weight than in 1992 on the candidates’ credentials as commander in chief. Democrats hope that Kerry’s record in Vietnam will blunt that advantage for Bush. But credibility on national security is still likely to help this Bush more than it did the first.
Compared to his father, this Bush may have an even wider advantage on values issues. Against Clinton, the elder Bush tried mightily to replicate his successful strategy from 1988, when he portrayed Democrat Michael S. Dukakis as outside the cultural mainstream.
But Clinton offered few targets. He supported the death penalty, insisted that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” and backed work requirements for welfare recipients.
By neutralizing the values issues, Clinton kept the campaign focused on the economic concerns where his opponent was weakest.
That won’t be nearly as easy for Kerry. He opposes the death penalty in all cases except terrorism and says he will only appoint Supreme Court justices who explicitly support the right to abortion. Kerry also opposed legislation Clinton signed to ensure that states need not recognize gay marriages performed in other states.
So far, Kerry has parried Republican thrusts on these issues mostly by dismissing them as a diversion from the real -- i.e., economic -- problems facing the country.
Even many Democrats recognize Kerry will need a better response. “If this comes down to a campaign between Kerry ... on the economy
Discontent over jobs remains Kerry’s best hope of taking the one belonging to Bush. But without convincing answers on national security and values, come November Kerry may have more in common than he’d like with all those Americans unable to land the jobs they want.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.