Getting Re-elected After Solving Economic Problems Is Easy

Jared Bernstein and Kevin Drum both like this line from Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Junker, uttered back in 2005:

We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get reelected once we have done it.

I think this line of thought is actually very misleading when it comes to economic policy issues. It’s something that I think politicians sometimes resort to in order to cover up for the fact that they don’t, in fact, know what to do. The basic reality is that objective conditions matter a lot in politics. Some of the recent disputes over exactly how much macroeconomic conditions matter to presidential elections kind of obscure the fact that on a basic level everyone agrees that they matter a lot. Everyone agrees, in particular, that it’s extremely hard to beat an incumbent who’s presiding over good times. If you make some unpopular choices, and then two years later there’s strong growth, it’s extraordinarily difficult for the opposition to say “yeah, but his policies were unpopular at the time!” Nobody cares. Countries deploy representative government for a reason. Most people have neither the inclination nor the capacity to develop informed rules about the details of public policy. Instead, they form opinions about whether things are getting better or not and reward or punish politicians accordingly. The job of politicians is to try to deliver the goods. The great virtue of economic policy is that in this area, leaders who really know what to do have every reason to just go do the right thing.