The US Presidential Elections: American voters give priority to their purses

AT THE Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, a simple slogan is taped to the wall for staff members to ponder. In large letters, it reads: 'The Economy, Stupid'. That is what will win their man the election. All else is mere distraction.

In poll after poll, interview after interview, the message is confirmed. A recent New York Times survey showed 77 per cent of voters disapproving of George Bush's handling of the economy, with only 17 per cent giving him the benefit of the doubt. And every poll shows that issues such as Bill Clinton's avoidance of the Vietnam draft or the Republican emphasis on family values matter little to voters besides their purses.

For Governor Clinton, President Bush's economic record offers a veritable pick'n'mix of campaign attack lines. As he takes to the stump every day, he recites an unemployment rate that is more than 2 per cent higher than when Mr Bush took office, an economic growth record worse than any during a presidential term since the Second World War and income figures showing most working Americans worse off than they were four years ago.

It could have been different. When the US recession set in, during the summer of 1990, the Republican view was that the normal economic cycle was on Mr Bush's side. Past wisdom suggested that a healthy recovery would have taken over at least by early 1992.

Mr Bush, by misfortune or mismanagement, has a recovery of sorts, but one so feeble that most voters do not acknowledge it. In the second quarter, April-June, the economy expanded a paltry 1.4 per cent and little improvement is expected for the quarter just ended. In some parts of the country the economy appears still to be shrinking.

Most crucially for the President, the weakness of the recovery is showing through in the relentlessly bleak unemployment figures. The last, issued on Friday, showed a tiny improvement, with the rate set at 7.5 per cent for September, compared with 7.6 per cent for August.

But, with these being the last statistics to be released before polling day, he is now saddled with a rate more than two points higher than the 5.4 per cent he opened with in 1988. Meanwhile, retail sales struggle, new house sales fell 6.1 per cent in August and all measures of consumer and business confidence continue to be depressed.

In his favour, the President can point to an inflation rate that has been squeezed down to around

3 per cent and interest rates lower than they have been for 30 years. But both, though welcome, are functions largely of the weakness of the economy and the efforts being made to revive it.

Joseph Duncan, president of the National Association of Business Economists, said last week: 'Basically, the recovery is about four quarters away - and we've been saying that for four years.'

Critics say Mr Bush could have avoided his economic hole had he not depended so completely for salvation on the Federal Reserve and low interest rates.

Mr Bush, then, is in an almost hopeless bind. Whenever he can, he will remind people that the economy is actually growing, at least in most parts of the country. He seeks also to lay part of the blame on the Democrat-led Congress for failing to endorse a recovery package he put forward in January. He is also haunted by his acquiescence in 1990 to tax increases that betrayed his 1988, read-my-lips pledge.

The President's only option, then, was to divert attention away from his record to the future. On 10 September, belatedly perhaps, he presented a coherent economic programme, 'Agenda for American Renewal'. It contains little surprising, but is an expression of his faith in keeping taxation and government spending low as the best path to recovery, with additional incentives such as capital gains tax credits. He promised to cut the White House budget by a third, if Congress would prescribe itself the same medicine.

Since then, Mr Bush has been able to seize on the differences between his economic philosophy and the programme put forward by Mr Clinton - and large differences there are. Governor Clinton is offering a dollars 200bn investment programme over five years to generate new employment with government projects such as road and bridge building coupled with increased job training. He says he will pay for it with tax increases on the top 2 per cent of American earners and increased taxes for foreign companies. That, with greater cuts in defence spending than Mr Bush is contemplating, will also leave enough to cut the federal deficit in half by 1996.

Many economists, while critical of Mr Bush's programme, also question whether Mr Clinton's sums will ever add up. The Bush team is also exploiting these doubts and the battleground is being narrowed again to the issue of taxation. In television advertisements aired this weekend that are very reminiscent of Conservative Party broadcasts in Britain in the spring, the Republicans are attempting to imply that Mr Clinton will only be able to finance his investment programme by extending tax increases to middle-income Americans - exactly the people to whom the Governor has promised some kind of tax alleviation. Mr Bush, meanwhile, is promising again, 'never, ever' to allow another tax increase.

Ross Perot's re-entry into the race last week has been welcomed by some observers to the extent that his radical programme of economic rationalisation - aimed primarily at demolishing the federal deficit entirely in five years - may serve to expose some of the worst fibs and evasions of both the Bush and Clinton platforms. But, so extreme is his vision of what he calls 'fair-shared sacrifice' - such as a 50-cent tax on a gallon of petrol and brutal cuts in government welfare spending - that Mr Perot is likely to find his electoral chances sunk by his economic programme alone.

So far, Mr Clinton's promise of some renewed government intervention - after 12 years of 'hands-off' Republican stewardship - to kick life back into the economy is what the voters seem most keen to hear. Above all, it would represent a change and hope of something better. And while in Britain voters always in the end feel that the Conservatives somehow are better qualified than the Labour Party when it comes to money and business, there is no corollary here.

When asked who is most likely to bring back the good times, most Americans today are answering Bill Clinton - by 52 per cent to 36 per cent in a recent Gallup Poll. That is what may, and probably will, win him the White House.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

CRM Data Analyst – Part time – Permanent – Surrey – Circa £28,000 pro rata

£15000 - £16800 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Mechanical Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...


£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The Job...Due to continued ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice