Deal’s ‘Happy Days’ strategy depends on Obama’s recovery

By Tom Baxter

In more ways than one, Barack Obama has been Nathan Deal’s bestest frenemy this year.

Obama is of course the scary figure whom Deal’s opponent, Jason Carter, is tied with in those black-and-white (mostly black) attack ads. In the eyes of Republican strategists, the president is the great nationalizer, and he’s been linked with the Democrat in nearly every race in the country.

Obama has been Deal’s frenemy in another, less obvious way as well.

This has been described as the most disliked stock market rally of all time, and something like that could be said about the broader, very sluggish recovery in the U.S. economy, over which Obama has presided. Like it or not, however, it is the broader recovery on which Georgia’s modest improvements depend.

Deal’s upbeat, “we’re coming back” strategy hangs on a thin reed, with last week’s report that Georgia’s jobless rate is the highest in the country for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession. But without the broader recovery, that approach would be a non-starter from the jump.

Even if Georgia’s jobless rate is the worst in the country — and really, we’re only quibbling here over whether we or Mississippi should be on the bottom — there are still enough visible signs of improvement in sectors such as the Atlanta housing market to feel better than four years ago. Deal’s strategy depends on that feeling. The state’s economy, thanks to the national recovery, is at least good enough to fudge the argument.

“It’s ironic that in a year in which Republican governors are leading some of the states that are making the most progress, that they almost, without exception, are classified as having a bump in their unemployment rates,” Deal said last week, reacting to the new unemployment figures. “Whereas states that are under Democrat governors’ control, they are all showing that their unemployment rate has dropped. And I don’t know how you account for that. Maybe there is some influence here that we don’t know about.”

Actually, the numbers aren’t that cut-and-dried. Oregon, the District of Columbia and Maryland, no Red State strongholds, showed upticks in their monthly jobless numbers similar to Georgia’s.

But the numbers do show Georgia, with an 8.1 percent unemployment rate, lagging behind the other Southern Atlantic states (Florida, 6.3 percent, South Carolina, 6.4 percent, North Carolina, 6.8 percent, Virginia, 5.6 percent). Georgia is closer to the Mississippi-Tennessee River Valley states, which have struggled to shake off the recession (Mississippi, 7.9 percent, Tennessee, 7.4 percent, Kentucky, 7.1 percent.) Why? We’re unlikely to get much rational discussion of that in the heat of a governor’s race.

It’s interesting to compare the unemployment map of the country with the most recent map of where the states stand on Medicaid expansion. There’s certainly not a direct correlation, but it’s fair to say those states which have accepted the expansion are doing no worse than those that haven’t.

When you look at the map showing estimated uninsured rates following implementation of the Affordable Care Act,  you get an uncomfortable picture of Georgia as a state with a lot of unemployed and a lot of uninsured, which is a prescription for worse problems down the line.

Somewhere between the beginning of this year’s national political campaign and its end, the idea that the ACA can be revoked outright has quietly faded away. The Republicans have a good chance of taking the majority in the U.S. Senate, but enthusiasm for taking up the issue has waned. That means that at least in the near term, the map will remain divided between those states accepting the billions in federal funds and those refusing.

If, a year from now, states like Georgia and Tennessee which have rejected the expansion continue to lag economically, there would be more reason to explore the relationship between these maps. But by then it will be too late to do much about it.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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