It's Still the Economy, Mr. Santorum

Donald Lambro

3/7/2012 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- At a time when Americans consider the lackluster Obama economy to be the No. 1 issue facing the country, Rick Santorum this week was suggesting that other issues deserve equal treatment.

That may be OK for those who have a secure job and have never been unemployed. However, most Americans, according to all the polls, still rate the economy and jobs at the top of their list of major concerns.

Yet there was former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum on Monday in the final 24-hour run-up to the Super Tuesday primaries dismissively asking, What's with all this focus on the economy?

Suggesting that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was a Johnny-one-note on the economy's troubles, Santorum told a few hundred people at the Dayton Christian School in Miamisburg, Ohio, that there were other important problems facing the country, "not just how we're going to manage the economy better."

"This country is more than just the economy," he said in a state whose economy has been struggling for years, and where the unemployment rate is at least 8 percent.

Where has Santorum been living in the past four years? In a cave? Is that the campaign line he's going to run on if he should be the GOP's presidential nominee?

Romney has been focused like a laser beam on the issue that polls show is President Obama's weakest: the lackluster, job-challenged economy. He has not only focused on its weakness, but has also compared his lifelong business career creating jobs to Santorum's political career in Congress, where he rarely talked about jobs because he was too busy leading the charge on social, cultural and religious issues.

"The economy is what I do, it's what I know, it's what I've done. I haven't just debated about it. I haven't just talked about it on subcommittees. I've actually done it -- started businesses, run businesses. I know how to do it," Romney said Monday.

If anything, his speeches in recent weeks have doubled down on economic issues as he related stories of how he has taken small start-up businesses like Staples and turned them into successful global enterprises and major job creators.

He knows what has been killing jobs in this economy: excessive taxation that erodes a business's bottom line; government mandates that heap punishing new costs on small businesses; the failure to open up new export markets for U.S. products overseas; and a massive, inefficient tax code and a jungle of regulations that impede innovation, risk-taking and investment.

This isn't a time to get sidetracked by secondary issues that distract us from the central issue of our time: making our economy healthy again, with growth rates of 4 percent or more, not the sickly 1 percent to 2 percent rates under Obama's "new normal" economic policies.

In recent weeks, the network news shows have been peddling the Obama administration's line that the economy is back, growing again and doing a lot better. Readers of this column know that I've disagreed with that on a number of fundamental levels.

The real, national long-term jobless rate is much higher than the government tells us, i.e., 9 percent or more, with a 19 percent underemployment rate that includes people forced to work fewer hours or at temp jobs. A puny 1.7 percent economic growth rate last year is nothing to brag about, either.

Let's add another devastating factor to the complaints about the Obama economy that the network news shows aren't reporting: Nearly half of Americans say the economy "is in either a recession or a depression," according to a new Gallup poll out this week.

When Gallup asked Americans across the country, "Do you think the U.S. economy is growing, slowing down, in a recession or in an economic depression?" they got this response:

Forty percent said it was growing, which of course it is, though at historically subpar growth rates that will not produce the 300,000 or more jobs per month needed to bring national unemployment levels down to 6 percent or less for several years.

But 27 percent also replied that we're still in a recession, 19 percent said a depression, and 13 percent said the economy was now "slowing down." Only 2 percent had no opinion.

So a whopping 59 percent believe this economy isn't doing so hot. I'll leave it for you to decide why this didn't make the nightly news or the front pages of America's newspapers.

It should come as no surprise that 50 percent or more of those who responded positively about the economy had "a political motivation to do so," as Gallup put it: "Democrats, nonwhites, and self-described liberals."

As for Republicans, only 26 percent said the economy was growing, but so what? The issue is the strength of that growth rate.

But the poll numbers contain yet another warning sign for the White House and the Obama campaign that hasn't escaped the attention of Romney's campaign strategists.

The responses from political independents to the state of the economy was closer to how Republicans see it than to the Democrats' perspective. More than a third of the independents said the economy was growing, while half say it is in recession or depression.

That little bombshell should trigger tremors in the Obama camp and raise doubts in the pundit class who think Obama cannot be beaten.

Forget "the economy is coming back" hype the news media have been shamelessly promoting. In the fourth year of Obama's presidency, there are still 15 states where the jobless rate is between 9 and 13 percent, including key swing states like Nevada, Florida and Arizona.

That's why Romney is staying focused on the economy. It is the issue that is going to decide Barack Obama's fate.