2012 Is a Real Big Deal

Ruth Marcus is bored by the 2012 presidential election and wants us to turn our attention to 2016 which, she argues, will be a lot more interesting:

Enough about the 2012 election already. Let’s talk 2016, which promises to be far more interesting — and consequential.

The precise contours of that election, of course, will be shaped by what happens this November. Yet either way, the 2016 campaign will be, much more than 2012, a battle for the ideological soul of one or both parties.

Two things. First, for as much as political observers have a sports-like obsession with the back-and-forth of politics, it’s important to remember that there are stakes involved in the outcome of a presidential election. From the future of health-care reform and the welfare state, to the environment and foreign policy, presidential elections have a profound effect on the lives and livelihoods of countless people. That Marcus is bored with 2012 is a sign that she doesn’t take that seriously enough.

That aside, Marcus is wrong to describe 2012 as a non-consequential election. Downturns don’t last forever, and ordinary economic activity will eventually bring the economy back to stability, even without help from the government. In other words, the important thing to remember about the next four years is that—barring another crisis—we should expect a fuller recovery from the recession of 2008. By the time the next election rolls around, unemployment could be near or below 7 percent, and the economy could be growing at a healthy clip.

If he is still in office, it’s almost certain that Barack Obama—and the Democratic Party—will receive credit for the likely revitalization. Much in the same way that Ronald Reagan could point to his tax cuts as the explanation for later economic growth, the outgoing President Obama could point to the stimulus as the foundation for this renewed growth, and the reforms in health care and the financial sector as part of his plan to share those gains with all Americans. Indeed, by then, the Affordable Care Act (if the Supreme Court hasn’t overturned it) would have kicked in, and millions of Americans would associate their new health-care benefits with President Obama and the Democratic Party.

By simple virtue of winning re-election and presiding over a “natural” recovery, Obama will have tilted the political playing field toward Democrats for at least another decade, giving them the opportunity to solidify the policy gains of his presidency. Likewise, a Republican win would do the same for the GOP, for the simple reason that President Romney would be able to claim credit for whatever economic growth occurs during his term, even if it has more to do with the fundamentals of the economy and not any particular piece of policy.

All of this is to say that the 2012 election will determine the shape of American government for a good while. By my lights, that makes it momentous and interesting.