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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT