Terrorism butting in on the economy

President Obama and the Democrats can't expect a "splendid little war" dividend.

The New York Times reports that unexpected events on the world stage are complicating the Democratic Party’s plans to win the midterms (or minimize losses in Congress) by focusing on such economic issues as the minimum wage, pay equity for women and the cost of college: “Instead, the public and Congress have been overwhelmed this summer by a border crisis, an Ebola outbreak in Africa and, most notably, the terrorist threat from the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS.” (President Barack Obama prefers to use ISIL.)

History tells us that presidents can benefit from a rally-round-the-flag effect during international crises. Jimmy Carter initially seemed to benefit from the Iranian revolution and the abduction of Americans in Tehran in 1979 (he brushed aside a primary challenge by Ted Kennedy, who came off as flummoxed by the events in the Middle East), and George W. Bush got almost-unanimous approval ratings soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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But President Obama is unlikely to rally the American electorate in anything close to this fashion. Americans are already tired of our long slog in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Obama’s reaction to the Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria—reassuringly measured or maddeningly vague, depending on your perspective—isn’t going to galvanize voters in support or opposition to the Democrats. One problem, from a political sense, is that Obama has no well-defined opposition to campaign against within the United States, since he can hardly portray the Republican Party as obstructionist on any intervention in the Middle East. (Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has exclaimed, “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.” And libertarian hero Rand Paul, auditioning to be an acceptable presidential nominee for the GOP establishment, is not pushing the isolationist line.)

In short, there’ll be no “splendid little war” for Obama, to use a phrase from the Spanish-American War in 1898, one that’s prominent in the latest Ken Burns extravaganza airing this week on public television, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

Not that the economy is a sure-fire winner for the Democrats. This week the Federal Reserve Bank lowered its expectations of long-run economic growth, and Reuters reported on the Census Bureau estimate that median household income inched up only $180 last year to $51,939, “a gain deemed statistically insignificant.”

And unemployment remains a concern. The Washington Post’s Max Ehrenfreund points to one chickens-coming-home-to-roost factor: “One likely source of [lower workforce participation] is the increasing number of people who have been to prison or who have been convicted of a felony. This surprisingly large group might have difficulty finding work even in a good job market, making it harder for the Fed to stimulate the economy back to full strength.” So the crime wave of the 1980s and early ’90s (and the resulting “tough on crime” policies) had the Democrats on the defensive then, and it’s still bedeviling the party.*

*The incarceration rate has fallen in the past few years, thanks to lower crime rates and a reevaluation of lock-’em-up strategies.

Image: Colonel Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War (National Park Service).

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