No matter what else voters say they care about, what is on their minds every day is the ability to earn a comfortable living comfortable meaning enough to pay the bills, save a little and have a little fun.
Maybe they have been unemployed for so long they would settle for anything. Maybe they are underemployed, working in a position that does not use their education, experience and skills. Maybe they have a good job but are worried about the long-term viability of their employer. Maybe they are self-employed and still waiting for the long-delayed recovery to make itself known.
Those are the people who listen closely to the candidates. For most Americans, the choice this year is not between entitlements for the poor (or for themselves, according to current rhetoric) and tax breaks for the wealthy. The difficult decision is which presidential candidates will do the most to ensure a stable economic future for middle-class individuals who are willing to work hard in exchange for fair compensation.
Most political analysts agree that if unemployment were 5 percent, Barack Obama could coast to a second victory. The jobless rate is 8.3 percent, though, and Republicans are telling Americans they are worse off than they were four years ago. If unemployment is the yardstick, then, indeed, they are.
A more useful question for judging the incumbent might be whether they are worse off than they would have been if John McCain had been elected president, but that answer is elusive.
For their part, Democrats are emphasizing that the economy was already on a steep skid when Obama took office. Unemployment had risen from 4.8 percent in February 2008 to 7.6 percent the next January. Their stimulus packages, Democrats say, have kept the problem from growing even worse. Be that as it may, Obama has had 43 months to match George W. Bushs numbers.
The real question is whether Romney and the Republicans can do any better and, to answer that, voters must decide which partys spiel they believe. There is little doubt that tax breaks for the rich could create jobs if those continuing to receive the breaks were convinced that hiring more workers would produce more profit. The question then would become whether hiring those workers in, say, Detroit would create more profit than hiring them in Bangladesh. How much would Americans benefit? As much as if taxes collected from ending the breaks were invested by the federal government (another big if) in infrastructure projects that put Americans to work? Again, the answers are elusive. Romney may have a workable plan, but he has not stated it clearly, and he also has not demonstrated that he understands the concerns of rank-and-file American workers, which are not the same as the interests of billionaires or even necessarily congruent with the goal of reducing the deficit.
The issue, however, is clear: Employment is where Americans most strongly feel the strength or weakness of the national economy. Right now, they are not feeling good.
Voters are tired of unkept promises. One solution may be to focus on how much control over the economy a president really can exercise: not all that much when Congress refuses to go along, and not all that much when the recession is global and other nations are in worse shape than the United States. Relying on a false premise when deciding to elect a new one or re-elect the old one is not a logical way to make political choices.
In the end, the decision may be between continuing a long slog or taking a leap of faith, but erratic leaps every four or eight years do not create sound economic policy. At most, they set the stage for the same discussion down the road.