John Kerry's hope of riding to the presidency by denouncing the "jobless recovery" are fading as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' employers' survey results come in: 288,000 jobs in April, on top of a revised 337,000 for March and an 867,000 total for the first four months of this year.
If job creation continues at the pace of March and April, there will be a net gain in jobs during Bush's term. Opinion on the economy hasn't turned around yet, as voters focus on horrifying pictures from Iraq. But Kerry has already switched his emphasis from low job creation to other economic woes. So it's possible that economic issues may work for Bush. But they could help his campaign much more, and provide a basis for second-term governance, if he frames economic issues a different way.
So far, Bush has followed Kerry in focusing on employment and jobs. But as time goes on and the economy changes, the important economic issue increasingly is not short-term income but long-term wealth.
We are a long way from the 1930s, when Americans faced something like 25 percent unemployment in the Great Depression. Then, and for decades after, most people lived off their cash income -- they had little in savings, no investments and no way of tapping any increase in the value of their houses. Voters who remembered how one year's decline in income in the 1930s led to personal economic disaster were exquisitely sensitive to any such decline for years after. But by 2002, only 8 percent of voters had personal memories of the 1930s. That number is not going to go up in 2004.
Most voters today have been living with a different economy, one in which bounteous job growth has been the norm and in which credit cards can tide you over temporary job loss. It is an economy in which the ordinary citizen over the course of a lifetime accumulates significant wealth, well into six figures today for 55- to 65-year-olds, mostly in the form of residential real estate and financial investments. It is wealth they can tap by credit card borrowing and mortgage refinancing.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the FHA and VA home mortgage guarantee programs helped convert America from a nation of renters to a nation of homeowners. In the 1980s and 1990s, 401(k) plans and similar tax-free vehicles have helped convert America from a nation of noninvestors to a nation of investors. In 2002, about 60 percent of Americans were investors. And many of the young, who have not yet accumulated any net worth, expect to be, and will.