Economic gains may not help Democrats much in 2014

By Tom Raum

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 29 2013 1:17 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this April 10, 2013 file photo President Barack Obama and acting Budget Director Jeffrey Zients leave the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington after the president discussed his proposed fiscal 2014 federal budget. Presidents like to take credit for economic recoveries, just as Obama is angling to do now. He and his allies in Congress have "walked the economy back from the brink," his new 2014 federal budget blueprint asserts. And Democrats hope these improvements, while still slow and uneven, will give them at least a small boost in 2014's midterm races.

Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Presidents like to take credit for economic recoveries, just as President Barack Obama is angling to do now.

He and his allies in Congress have "walked the economy back from the brink," his new 2014 federal budget blueprint asserts. And Democrats hope these improvements, while still slow and uneven, will give them at least a small boost in 2014's midterm races.

That's a big order, considering:

—Presidential claims of responsibility for economic gains rarely win plaudits from voters, yet presidents nearly always get blamed when things get worse.

—The historical odds for midterm gains in Congress by the in-power party are slim at best. Since World War II, the president's party has lost an average of 26 seats in midterm elections and gained seats only twice — Democrats in 1998 under President Bill Clinton and Republicans in 2002 with George W. Bush in the Oval Office.

—Presidential elections are often referendums on the economy. That applies less often to midterms.

Still, the health of the economy "is going to be an important factor" in 2014 races, said Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Mellman. "What matters most is changes in the amount of money people have in their pockets. It's very hard to tell people they're better off than they feel."

"But we're still quite a ways from November 2014," he added.

Right now, surveys and reports show that the recovery is continuing, although more slowly than most, despite continued high unemployment and an environment of modest economic growth and inflation. Home prices are on the rise, manufacturing is slowly improving.

And in a report Monday, the government said consumers increased their spending in each of the last three months: by 0.2 percent in March, 0.7 percent in February and 0.3 percent in January.

The government reported Friday that economic growth accelerated to an annual rate of 2.5 percent from January through March, helped by the strongest consumer spending in more than two years. But federal spending fell, and tax increases and Washington's budget cuts could slow growth later this year.

The report showed the economy was getting stronger after nearly stalling late last year, when it grew just 0.4 percent in the final three months of 2012.

"It's hard to do victory laps in the climate of slow growth and continued high unemployment," said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University.

"A president's job is to rebuild the psyche of the nation," Brinkley said. "And there has been a feeling of incremental improvement after Obama's first term in office. That's the key word, incremental. Presidents have to make the people believe that things are getting better every month.

"A lot of what I'm talking about is the optics of the situation. When Obama came in, things were rotten and then it got better. There is no longer that sense of panic going on."

Obama's efforts have been overshadowed somewhat by several noneconomic issues: the congressional battles over gun safety and immigration and the deadly Boston Marathon bombings.

What steps can Obama rightfully claim that have helped spur economic improvement?

His $830 billion stimulus program of 2009, for one. The White House also cites two other major emergency programs — the auto and financial industry bailouts. Both were started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Obama.

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