Opinion

Why the economy almost guarantees Hillary will win. Almost.

Hillary Clinton is a terrible, wooden campaigner. But the economy may be "likeable enough" for her to cruise to victory.

If Mitt Romney couldn't beat President Obama in 2012 when the jobless rate was almost 8 percent, how can the next Republican nominee beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 when the unemployment rate could be under 5 percent?

That's the big question Republican presidential candidates must ask themselves. And the unpleasant political possibility for the GOP's White House hopefuls is that the improving U.S. economy is, well, "likeable enough" for voters to give Democrats four more years in the Oval Office. At the very least, the economy might be such a strong tailwind for Democrats that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or whoever else the GOP puts up would need to run a near-flawless campaign to win.

Now, there are no economic guarantees here. Maybe the Yellen Fed will start reading too much Austrian economics, freak out about inflation, and crank up interest rates so high that it causes a recession. Of course, that's unlikely. The more likely scenario is more of the same, and the slow-but-steady Obama-era recovery keeps chugging along.

Sure, the Fed probably will raise rates sometime this year. With inflation low, however, the pace of tightening should be gradual. And even if economic growth doesn't accelerate much, it seems good enough to keep generating gobs of jobs and a much lower unemployment rate. In a new analysis, for instance, Goldman Sachs says the U.S. economy will add another 3.5 million net new jobs over the next year and half — on top of the 12 million created since the recovery began — bringing the jobless rate to 4.8 percent by Election Day 2016. Compare that to the Great Recession peak of 10 percent. Even a wooden politician like Clinton should be able to run a successful "stay the course" campaign on those numbers.

Many Republicans will surely disagree with this thesis. They see the "failure" of Obamanomics as self-evident, and seem certain that it will be a big plus for their nominee. Among their arguments: Sure, the "official" unemployment rate is way down, but that's only because so many discouraged potential workers have left the labor force. Also, what kind of jobs are being created anyway? Isn't wage growth stagnant? And remember that a strong economy back in 2000 didn't help Vice President Al Gore, another wooden, uncharismatic Democrat running for a predecessor's de facto third term.

These counters are hardly persuasive. First, Romney also tried the labor force participation argument to prove the economy was far worse than the headline jobless numbers suggested. Not a game changer. What matters to voters is that they have a job and aren't scared about losing it — not the fate of "discouraged" workers as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a little abstract.

Second, while wage growth isn't roaring, lower energy prices and low inflation overall means take-home pay is rising at a pretty good clip for consumers. Third, Gore really didn't run on the Bill Clinton economic boom. At the Democratic National Convention that year, he said, "This election is not an award for past performance. I'm not asking you to vote for me on the basis of the economy we have." (Well, he should have! Talk about campaign malpractice.) And finally, it's hard for Republicans to ding the "Obama-Hillary" economy when the the financial system nearly collapsed under the watch of the last Republican president.

But all is not lost for the GOP! When Al Gore ran, 60 percent of Americans thought his boss was doing a good job and felt the country was on the right track. Not so today. This is an economic recovery, not a Reaganesque or Clinton-style economic boom. President Obama has a 45 percent approval rating. Sixty percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. There is a deep disquiet within the American spirit. Yes, Americans think they are better off than they were when Obama was first elected and the economy was in a death spiral. But too many fear their children won't be better off 10 and 20 years from now as global competition and technological automation threaten the idea of a broad, prosperous middle class.

Instead of trying to persuade Americans that the Obama recovery is worse than they think, Republicans would be better off talking about the future and how all Americans can flourish. During the recent UK election, the Labour Party did its best to badmouth the so-so economy under the Conservatives. The Tories managed to win by persuading middle-income voters they had the better agenda for the future. There is a lesson there for Republicans.

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