Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

America's economic crisis ignored on campaign trail

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Tue March 27, 2012
People stand in a line that stretched around the block to enter a job fair on March 21 in New York City.
People stand in a line that stretched around the block to enter a job fair on March 21 in New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candidates agree that the economy is the main issue in the election
  • Julian Zelizer says they're ignoring the deeper economic challenge America faces
  • Good jobs have gone offshore, inequality is growing and urban areas lag, he says
  • Zelizer: U.S. economic problems are decades in the making and need serious attention

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and of the new book "Governing America" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- All of the candidates in the presidential campaign agree the 2012 election will revolve around the economy.

Although there are signs that conditions are slightly improving, the high unemployment rate and the depressed housing market are causing immense anxiety among American voters.

As a result, most of the political debate has centered on how the nation will rebound from the steep 2007-09 recession and anemic recovery that has afflicted the nation throughout President Barack Obama's term in the White House.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans and Democrats have tried to walk a political high wire as the release of new economic data continually changes the playing field. Mitt Romney, for instance, fell into a trap when he admitted that there were signs the economy was improving, a statement that caused many Republicans to grumble about their front-runner handing Democrats the key issue. Meanwhile, Obama's optimism has often been undercut with data showing that the situation is still bad.

With all the attention that has been given to short-term economic recovery, however, politicians in both parties have generally avoided the types of long-term structural challenges that are really at the heart of national anxiety and which greatly threaten America's ability to compete with China and other rising economic powers.

Economy top issue for Louisiana voters
GOP: $5.3 trillion cuts in 2013 budget

The first problem has been the exodus of good jobs to other countries.

In one of the most troubling developments of recent decades, many types of industrial jobs have been shipped overseas. And by and large, they won't be returning.

Numerous companies have built facilities in other countries where labor costs are lower, workplace laws are lax or nonexistent and other kinds of regulations are weak. According to a recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the United States lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs in the 2000s. If these trends continue, the tight labor market will become the new normal.

The chances for high school and college graduates to land solid jobs in the U.S. will diminish, as has already been the case for many working Americans who have watched the factories shut down.

Another chronic challenge facing the U.S. is the rising level of inequality in the United States. The gap between the rich and poor has grown dramatically since the 1970s. A troubling trend that has lasted for decades has been that the average income of the top 5% has risen while the average income of the rest of the nation has fallen.

The number of Americans in the ranks of the middle class has thinned. The income supports upon which workers depended have diminished, both those provided by government and by private employers. More Americans find themselves squeezed lower onto the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

As many commentators have noted, there are a number of causes for this growing gap, including public policy.

Without the ability of the government and private markets to reverse this trend, the U.S. will not be able to sustain the kind of vibrant middle class -- which in the 1940s and 1950s was attainable by more and more Americans -- that has been the engine behind the American dream.

The final challenge is an urban crisis that has decimated pockets of America.

As Thomas Sugrue showed in his award-winning book, "The Origins of the Urban Crisis," the breakdown of the cities began in the 1940s and 1950s as racist employment practices and real estate markets hampered the ability of African-Americans to get good jobs or relocate into better neighborhoods. The problems accelerated as jobs continued to move into the suburbs (before moving overseas). Rioting in the 1960s further devastated these communities.

The result of the urban crisis has been that multiple generations of inner-city residents have lived with little hope for a better future and have struggled to make ends meet, trying to survive on streets that are ridden by crime and drugs.

Many black leaders have been deeply disappointed that Obama, the first African-American occupant of the White House, has not done much to address these issues.

Although Republican Rick Santorum recently proposed tax cuts to lure business into these areas, there is little evidence that such a change in policy would do much to reverse decades of decay.

These are not the kinds of issues that politicians like to talk about in their campaigns. As opposed to temporary recessions, these quasi-permanent structural challenges have been decades in the making and will require wrenching policy choices as well as dramatic market developments to resolve.

If our political leaders don't address these issues that underlie the concerns of the nation, it will become ever more difficult to re-create the vibrant economic conditions that existed during the "American Century" when grand expectations about the future, as the historian James Patterson argued, guided public debate.

Then, the nation was strong and the possibilities for growth seemed infinite. Today, even if short-term conditions improve, our economy is far from what it used to be. How to achieve a better future is the debate that we really should be having in 2012.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT