Economy emerges as key election issue

Abdul Mohamed of Woodbury says he's worried about the economy.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Woodbury's glassed-in, Central Park feels like a tropical refuge from the winter. There are trees and flowing water amid plenty of places to sit down. There is also a steady stream of passers-by, including a young man named Abdul Mohamed.

Mohamed works at the airport handling mail for a postal service contractor. He's just come from the library, and he welcomes a conversation about the economy.

"The only thing on my mind is how I'm going to pay for my rent and what I'm going to live on," Mohamed says. "Two or three years ago I had no problem paying my rent or putting gas in my car, but lately everything's been tight. Even groceries have even gotten more."

Mohamed says there's a lot less socializing in his life now and a lot more budgeting. And he knows he's not the only one feeling the pinch.

"The only thing on my mind is how I'm going to pay for my rent and what I'm going to live on."

"I work with a couple of guys who work three jobs now, where a year ago they only had one, to support their family," Mohamed says.

For the past several years polls have shown Americans have been more concerned about the war in Iraq than about the economy. But that's changing.

Last week a CNN/ Public Opinion Research Corporation poll found 29 percent of Americans view the economy, and not Iraq, as the top issue in the presidential race. That's a reversal from October.

A recently published Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll came up with similar results.

"If you look at the poll we did you see it pretty starkly," says Jerry Seib, the executive Washington Editor of the Wall Street Journal.

"Thirty-four percent of people said that terrorism was the issue set that mattered to them the most, while 52 percent said the economy and health care were more important," Seib says. "That's almost a total reversal from where those sentiments were two or three years ago."

And the candidates are picking up in that sentiment. Jennifer Duffy, who analizes national politics for the Cook Political report, says talk about the economy has become a catch-all for a host of voter anxieties.

"You hear every candidate talk about economic-related issues," Duffy says. "And you're starting to hear a little bit less about Iraq on the campaign trail, more about the economy. But as the bigger issue what you're hearing from most of these candidates is a call for change."

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier says he thinks voters are bumping Iraq from the top of their list of concerns because of perceived progress there.

Schier also says he thinks Americans are more worried about what could be in store for the economy than about what's currently happening with it.

Some analysts are likening what's going on now to the economic and political conditions of the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton won the White House from the first President Bush and his top strategist coined the "it's the economy, stupid" phrase. But Schier says that's going a bit far.

"After all, we actually had a recession in the early 90's with unemployment significantly higher than it was before and negative economic growth," he says. "We're not anywhere in that neighborhood now."

Although the economy is growing right now, the CNN poll shows most Americans think otherwise and believe the nation is in a recession.

Schier says it's natural for the economy to rise to the forefront in an election year when economic prospects are uncertain.

He says typically when the economy is the issue, the party currently holding the White House loses. But he says Democrats can't take that for granted next year because there is widespread unhappiness with the political status quo.

While Schier disputes the economic comparisons to the early 1990's, he says the current uncertainly is reminiscent of that time.

"There's a lot of volatility and dissatisfaction out there not unlike the early 90's," Schier says. "It could lead to some third party candidate for president and it could lead to some unforeseeable shifts in public opinion over the next year."

Back at Woodbury's indoor central park, Dianne Frisk says she is worried about all the jobs that U.S. has lost.

"Everything is a worry right now," Frisk says. "I don't know where it's going to go. I'm concerned though."

What does seem clear is that politicians who were counting on Iraq being the top issue in 2008 like it was 2006 will likely be reworking their messages trying to convince voters they've got the best ideas for bolstering economic prospects for the middle class.

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