The oft-sputtering economic recovery is primed to finally take off, according to a near-consensus view of economists and forecasters, bringing with it the kind of robust growth not seen since before the Great Recession. During its most recent meeting in June, the Federal Reserve Board issued an improved outlook, suggesting growth would accelerate at a higher clip than expected next year while the unemployment rate dips, perhaps to as low as 6.5 percent.
The most politically consequential metric, consumer confidence, is also rebounding. Public confidence reached a five-year high in June, as measured by Gallup. A Pew Research Center survey last week found the most positive views of the economy since January 2008. The economy is getting better, and voters feel it.
All of that should be good news for Democrats, especially those lawmakers facing reelection next year who would love nothing more than to take credit for the good times. Yet even as the economy faces a succession of green lights, the party's lawmakers and strategists are proceeding with more caution than optimism. In part, their prudence reflects a continued skepticism about the recovery, but also an assessment that Democrats' best messages lie elsewhere. "There's no question we've talked about it," said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic consultant who works on both House and Senate races. "We've definitely had conversations about the possibility that the economy could be — could be — an asset for us." But he emphasized, "Nobody is planning on it. Nobody is banking on it."
Democrats have been here before. As far back as 2010, a predicted "Recovery Summer" was supposed to lift lawmakers to reelection. Instead, the economy faltered and Democrats suffered their worst defeat since the 1930s, losing control of the House and six seats in the Senate. Even last year, a strong one for President Obama's party, few congressional candidates touted the recovery.
Those memories remain fresh and, for now, more relevant than forecasts for a recovery. And it explains why many Democrats aren't ready to predict next year's campaign will be full of optimistic assessments of the country's economy. "I think our [message] has been and will continue to be that slow steady progress has been made," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Other Democrats aren't so sure that even if the recovery does gain steam, voters will respond as they normally do during economic rebounds. The Great Recession left a deep, permanent mark on the psyche of many Americans, according to John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who worked on the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Even 18 months of good news won't undo the damage. "It's almost as if the Depression-era mentality has crept into the middle-class families," he said. "Regardless of good economic news, there's going to be anxiety, and they're going to act differently in terms of how they save and spend."
If Anzalone's theory is right, there's a certain irony for Democrats. Obama's reelection was aided by voters' lowered expectations for the economy and pace of the recovery, a mind-set that helped him defeat Mitt Romney despite historically high unemployment and anemic growth. Now, even with unemployment falling and growth rising, the public's skittishness could inhibit any impulse to reward Democrats in 2014.
It's why Anzalone and others say Democrats should continue to focus their message not on a recovery but on issues such as middle-class fairness and GOP obstructionism. With anxiety still percolating, voters remain worried about their own economic security and frustrated with Washington's inability to deal with the nation's problems.
Continued worries about a sluggish economy will bring voters' ire directly on the GOP, predicted J.B. Poersch, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Poersch said Democrats can make the case that Republicans should be blamed for standing in the way of the recovery. "I think it's hurting them more than it's helping us," he said.
For their part, Republicans continue to hammer the president and Democrats for the state of the economy and the laggard recovery. In a speech last week, House Speaker John Boehner blasted Obama and Democrats for presiding over the slowest recovery "since World War II." "Experts call our condition "˜the new normal.' Some even argue it is good enough for now," said the GOP leader, speaking to the National Association of Manufacturers. "Well, it is not good enough for me — not nearly good enough — and I know it is not good enough for you."
That argument largely failed Republicans last year, but if the recovery stumbles once again, voters might no longer excuse the president's economic performance after six years in office.
In any case, the debate is a useful reminder that what matters most to next year's races isn't necessarily topic No. 1 in Washington right now. "It may not be discussed in the chattering in the TV, radio, newspaper because it's far more fun to talk about immigration, farm bills, and guns," said Pollock. "But there's no doubt [the economy] is going to be a relevant piece in the election."
How relevant depends on whether the forecasts for job growth actually pan out. And whether Democrats decide that running on the economy is a good idea after all.