“Hope and change” is so 2008. Now, if anything, it’s just about hope.
Donald Trump and his supporters have been insisting for months that this election is a “change” election. That is, Americans want to throw the bums out – specifically, the party of the bums occupying the White House – and usher in a wholly different leadership style that will lead to a wholly different society and economy.
“A vote for Hillary is a vote for more of the same,” a recent Trump ad declares. “A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for change that makes America great again.”
But despite such proclamations, nearly every data point available suggests Americans don’t really want much change. They would probably be happy with a little more of the same – if only they could find it.
Exhibit A: President Obama’s approval rating. For weeks it’s been hovering around the highest levels of his second term. At about 54 percent, it’s similar to Ronald Reagan’s at this point in his presidency and is roughly 20 points higher than George W. Bush’s during a comparable period.
Likewise, on most economic measures, the country is doing much better than Republicans give it credit for.
After the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we returned to pre-crisis levels of income per capita in “only” seven years. Sure, that may not sound spectacular. But it’s better than the historical average, and the records of nearly every other country that went through a financial crisis at the same time, according to work by economists Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff.
Even without such dismal comparisons to flatter our own achievements, U.S. economic conditions today look much rosier than Republicans portray.
In his Trump endorsement last week, former Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese III remarked, “Many of us remember 1980, a time when, as today, America suffered from high unemployment and even higher interest rates.” While this does accurately reflect conditions in 1980, it’s an almost comic misrepresentation of the current U.S. economy.
First, even after a much-awaited fed funds rate hike last year, interest rates remain near record lows, at least in nominal terms. Inflation is teeny-tiny. Unemployment has been hovering around 5 percent, which not so long ago economists thought represented full employment.
We’ve also had 72 straight months of job growth, the longest stretch of monthly net increases going back to at least 1939.
Last year saw the greatest single-year increase in U.S. median household income since at least 1968. A more recent Labor Department release found that inflation-adjusted weekly earnings of the median full-time worker reached an all-time high in the third quarter this year.
Even on the current administration’s supposed major failure – the Affordable Care Act – things are looking pretty good. A record-low share of Americans are uninsured; health-care price growth has in recent years reached historical lows, too.
What about those nasty premium hikes you heard about last week?
Americans may not love the law nicknamed Obamacare, but they sure seem to love the things it does (including guaranteeing coverage to those with preexisting conditions and eliminating lifetime caps on how much insurance companies must pay for a person’s health care). That’s a branding problem, not a desire for a wholesale policy change.
Does the law need improvements? Absolutely. But that’s very different from completely repealing it and replacing it with “something terrific.”
The most frequently cited data point suggesting Americans want “change” is that two-thirds believe the country is on the “wrong track.” But as my colleague Scott Clement points out, this vague survey question has historically been a lousy predictor of presidential outcomes. I'll add that these figures may also reflect disgust with the ugliness unleashed by this political campaign, rather than actual policy.
The bottom line is this: Republicans ought to be careful when they warn that Hillary Clinton equals “four more years of Obama.” “More years of Obama” is an option a lot of voters would gladly take, if indeed they were offered it.
In fact, Clinton’s biggest challenge – given the aura of scandal that perpetually wafts around her but not her former boss – may be convincing voters that these Republican accusations are right.