More than 75% of Americans now say that the economy is their number one concern heading into the general election in the fall. Those poll numbers are more than confirmed by consumer sentiment surveys which, despite a recent bounce care of the slight retreat of gas prices, have been at multi-decade nadirs. With incomes stagnant and spending squeezed by higher food and energy prices on the one hand and tighter credit on the other, hundreds of millions of Americans are feeling unable to meet their needs and/or desires with the money available to them.
Given this situation, you'd think that economic news would attract more debate and discussion. It doesn't. On Monday, Senator Obama caucused with some economic policy heavyweights, including Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, John Corzine, Paul Volcker, former Bush treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and billionaire investor Warren Buffet. That meeting followed a ten-day trip abroad that attracted voluminous attention, reams of journalistic commentary, and lots of chatter in the blogosphere. The meeting Monday was certainly widely reported, but it is a one-day story at best, without controversy, without much in the way of discussion, and little in the way of excitement.
That's the problem with economic issues today: they may be important, but when it comes down to the details, they are, well, boring. Boring when compared to acute, life-and-death questions of troops in Iraq and nukes in Iran, and less amenable to villains, heroes, or solutions. It is true that the gap between the wealthy and the rest has been yawning wide, and it's true that many are feeling squeezed. It's easy to point fingers, but the issues are systemic and global, and the answers are mostly wonky.
Somehow, we're going to have to overcome this reluctance to focus in detail on economic issues. In 1992, the Clinton campaign was able to turn the economy into an electoral attack against a sitting president and blame him for it. The Obama campaign can legitimately associate McCain with today's problems in the credit markets and wealth distribution, but McCain himself has already been distancing himself from Bush and the Republican Congress. That means that "It's the economy, stupid" - a slogan that worked so well for Clinton - needs updating. It is the economy for most Americans, but no one has yet figured out how to channel that sentiment.
There is a parallel with health care: Americans rate health care as a top concern, along with Iraq, the economy, and rising energy prices. But does anyone walk into a voting booth and push a button because candidate X has a more appealing plan for Medicare Part D or for insurance co-payments? Maybe, but there is more evidence that people vote their passions, and those passions are usually not the product of health care reform white papers or economic stimulus packages.
Obama has a remarkable ability to reframe the public debate, but generating passion around "the economy" is still elusive. The topic may be front and center, yet people tune out when the discussion gets going, whether on the Huffington Post or in the Washington Post. What's needed is an "it's the economy, stupid" for 2008. What should that be? "It's really the economy, stupid" probably doesn't cut it. No, there needs to be a clear and simple enunciation about the consequences of global capital flows, the changing nature of the global economic system, and the responsibility of a national government to manage the dislocations that recent developments have caused. Would that engage the electorate? Would it lead to heated discussions?
There was a priceless moment in the fictionalized account of the 1992 election Primary Colors where the nominee (a veiled Bill Clinton) confronts workers in a factory about to close and says bluntly, the jobs aren't coming back and the world has moved on, but there are things government can do and things individuals can do that they haven't been doing. It was a bracing vision of plain talk and idealism, blunt yet compassionate, direct, and challenging. It was fiction, but it's the right formula. Obama can begin that conversation (as could McCain, he of the formerly "straight talk express"), but it must be continued by others. That is our collective responsibility, to take the act of citizenship and engagement to a next level and engage with those issues that so many say matter. If we then refuse to tune in, and instead follow American Idol with more passion than we do the future shape of our economic lives, the slogan will become an epitaph: "It's the economy, and we were stupid."