Michael Tomasky: The Economy Is Great for the Next President

President Obama holds a campaign rally in Virginia. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The day after last Tuesday’s debate, as I was monitoring the Twitter feed for the post-debate debate, some news flashed across the screen that elicited more than one tweeted, all-cap, “WHOA!” Housing starts in September surged to their fastest pace in four years, up 15 percent over August, far exceeding the experts’ predictions. In the diurnal bickerfest over Candy Crowley and Benghazi, liberals and conservatives agreed that this was impressive stuff.

It’s not the only recent good tiding. We all know about the 7.8 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in four years. OK, conservatives, cavil if you wish. But it’s the unemployment rate we have, and to most normal people cheering for America, it’s welcome news. Weekly jobless claims in the week after the unemployment rate was announced were far lower than expected. And then came the announcement that consumer confidence is at a five-year high.

There’s more: the Federal Reserve is now seemingly committed to low interest rates and fiscal stimulus well into the future, and some Fed officials have even spoken (no!) of letting inflation get above 2 percent if that’s what it takes to bring unemployment down further. In its mid-October unemployment report, Gallup, which surveyed 30,000 households, found that the jobless rate was heading in that happy direction, indicating perhaps that the September number was not a fluke.

Is the economy finally turning the corner? Could it—sort of, maybe, almost—be Morning in America again?

I don’t know. Economists barely know, and they’re the experts. But one thing is already clear: even the appearance of a strong economic rebound taking shape during the final weeks of the campaign could have enormous consequences on the outcome—and on what follows it.

The plan, or more accurately the hope, among Democrats coming into 2012 was that the economy would rebound by the summer—June or July, say—giving voters plenty of time to see that the sunny side was up and adjust their views accordingly. Job-creation numbers came in sky-high in January and February. But March was so-so (143,000), and April was cruel (68,000).

As their plan collapsed in the face of economic realities, the Obama people conditioned themselves to having to run in a crap economy. Hence, the attacks on Romney over the summer, the changes of topic to anything else.

But now, suddenly, almost out of nowhere, Obama can talk about the economy. He just doesn’t have much time. In cops-and-lawyers dramas from Perry Mason to NCIS, the crucial piece of evidence comes in at the 11th hour—but always in time for a happy ending. Can a message get through to people in just two weeks, especially with no chance to drive the point home before a national audience?

Last week, Obama finally decided to tout all the positive news, working many of the above statistics into his stump speech. It’s a potentially strong closing argument—though only if enough people feel it rings true, if the October jobs numbers (which will come out the Friday before the election) are strong, and if he ties it to an explicit argument about how this crucial moment would be the worst possible time to turn back to the policies that created the crisis in the first place.

That last question—should we go forward or back?—may turn out to be even more crucial than the president has indicated up until now. With the economy just starting to pick up steam after years in the doldrums, things might be all teed up for the winner of the election to preside over a rebounding and robust economy. Whoever wins will get the credit and reap the benefit. This is no small thing. In fact it’s a very huge thing. The winner may very well go down in history as the man who led the country out of the greatest economic crisis in eight decades.

If it’s Obama, that validates the stimulus, the deficit—even Obamacare, which revolutionizes one sixth of the economy. That old-time FDR religion, Democrats could claim, still works. “Which party sent this country to the brink of ruin in 2008, and which party pulled our chestnuts out of the fire?” could be a Democratic rallying cry until about the 2040s.

And if it’s Romney? Well, that’ll be one lucky man. He’ll brag, of course, that it was all about his policies. The party that made the mess will spend the next few years or decades—and they’re pretty good at this sort of thing—hammering home the argument that they sorted it all out as soon as Obama got out of the way.

So the improving economy raises the stakes in a huge way. In case they weren’t high enough for you already.