Most of the 23 Democratic presidential candidates talk about jobs in one way or another, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren has gained particular attention recently for her very specific and dramatic job-creation proposals. Warren made headlines last week with her plan for "fundamental, structural changes in our government's approach to the economy," with a strategy for using "all the tools of government to defend and create American jobs." Warren proposed spending $2 trillion in clean energy technology and combating climate change -- in the process creating "more than a million good jobs here at home."
Warren also called for the creation of a new cabinet-level Department of Economic Development, with "the sole responsibility to create and defend quality, sustainable American jobs."
This type of major focus on jobs is not a new concept. Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932 promising a "New Deal" to help mitigate the massive unemployment gripping the nation, and he later created the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps expressly to use government funds to employ workers in a wide variety of government jobs.
In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned by decrying the incumbent government's failure to "produce what we need: good jobs in a growing economy" and promised to put "people first by investing more than $50 billion annually over the next four years to put America back to work."
And President Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign promised that he would be "the greatest jobs president that God ever created," in the process promulgating an economic plan that he said would result in the creation of 25 million jobs. Trump has continued to trumpet the importance of jobs since taking office, headlining a number of his tweets with a three-word mantra: "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!"
Warren is now building on this rich historical tradition. What do we know about how her proposals for huge new government efforts to create jobs fit with current American public opinion? My review suggests four things to keep in mind:
1. The good news for Warren is that jobs, in a broad sense, are the backbone of the U.S. economy and have historically been very important to Americans.
Research we conducted a few years ago showed that Americans were more likely to suggest creating new jobs than anything else when asked what could be done to improve the U.S. economy. Gallup CEO Jim Clifton wrote an entire book about the importance of jobs as the key factor in the U.S. and global economies.
There is no wonder that candidates are perennially focused on the "J" word when they campaign.
No one is going to criticize a politician for promising to create more jobs.
2. The less good news for Warren is that most of our indicators show Americans' concern about jobs at this particular point in history is at or near a low point.
Americans are in a quite positive frame of mind when asked to rate the economic conditions in this country, and only 3% mention jobs or unemployment when asked to name the top problem facing the nation.
This latter point is important. After the recession, at several points in 2011, over a third of Americans volunteered that jobs were the top problem facing the nation, making it the single most frequently mentioned concern. Going back further, at times in 1945, 1946 and 1983, over half of Americans said that jobs were the top problem facing the nation. We are not in that type of perceived crisis now.
A recent Gallup piece by my colleague Lydia Saad showed that 71% of Americans say it is a good time to find a quality job, the highest such percentage in Gallup's history of measuring the trend on a monthly basis going back to 2001. At its nadir in the years 2009-2011, by comparison, the percentage of Americans saying it was a good time to find a quality job was in single digits.
Further, workers are less worried about their job security than in the past. A Gallup update in April of this year showed 65% of employed Americans said it was "not at all likely" they would lose their job, one of the highest such optimistic percentages since Gallup first began asking the question on a periodic basis in 1975. And last August, 63% of workers reported being completely satisfied with their job security, one of the highest figures for that trend since Gallup began asking the question in 1993.
Thus, although Warren (and most other Democratic candidates) continue to treat jobs as a major issue in the evolving presidential campaign, on a relative basis employment appears to be less of a concern to Americans than it has been at many points in times past.
3. Warren's proposal to massively increase government intervention in the economy will activate underlying concerns about the federal government.
As I have discussed previously, the American public's relationship with its national government is complex and nuanced. Americans' wholehearted embrace of the idea of adding huge new government programs and bureaucracies is by no means certain. Research shows that Americans are wary of their federal government, particularly the elected officials who serve in Washington -- even though Americans have a general understanding that government serves a function and needs to continue to exist.
Warren has placed her plan to create more than a million new jobs within the context of a massive program to combat climate change, and in turn has argued that her plan to dramatically escalate the use of government is on par with other times in history when the nation needed to engage in huge spending programs. She has named three times when the government's role in society was vastly increased as analogs to what she proposes doing now -- the industrial mobilization during World War II; the Marshall Plan, when the government spent billions helping Europe recover after World War II; and the Apollo Program, which cost billions in tax dollars to send men to the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Interestingly, there was mixed public support for those government programs as they were unfolding. Americans were very isolationist in the years leading up to World War II -- before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized public support for the war. There was mixed support for the Marshall Plan, and generally less than majority support for the Apollo Program during the 1960s as billions were being spent on it.
So, history does not suggest necessary nor unanimous support for bold ("aggressive") uses of government to attack major problems.
Further, recent Gallup polling shows that given a choice, the majority of Americans (62%) want the free market, rather than the government, to be primarily responsible for "the economy overall" and "wages." And Americans continue to tilt toward the view that the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.
The philosophic position that it is appropriate for the government to aggressively intervene in the nation's economic system to address problems has been a consistent debate in U.S. history -- exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt's famous 1932 Commonwealth Club speech in San Francisco (when he, like Warren, advocated for a strong government role). This is still a matter of debate today. Warren certainly faces the challenge of convincing Americans that such an effort is warranted and appropriate at a time when the public holds government in very low esteem.
4. Even with all of the concerns about government, some more upbeat news for Warren is that Americans have in the recent past been relatively positive when presented with thumbnail sketches of proposals to use government monies to create jobs.
As I reviewed in 2016, 50% of Americans said that "providing new federal government programs designed to increase U.S. manufacturing jobs" would be very effective, putting it well into the top 10 of 47 proposals tested in this research, and well above the 38% average "very effective" rating.
A different Gallup research project conducted a few years ago showed majority agreement with proposals to "provide tax incentives for companies to train workers to acquire new skills" and "provide $5.5 billion in federal dollars for job-training programs that would create 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans" -- and, particularly germane to Warren's proposals, 64% agreement with the idea to "spend more government money to encourage innovation and increase manufacturing jobs in the clean energy market."
This research is a few years old, as noted, but holds out the possibility of Americans reacting positively to proposals to spend government money on hard-to-argue-with goals such as increasing manufacturing jobs.
Elizabeth Warren is getting significant credit for putting out a long list of very specific, large-scale policy proposals, and as a result is being portrayed as a fast-rising challenger to leader Joe Biden in national and Iowa polls of Democratic primary voters. As The New York Times said this week: "As the 23 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination struggle to distinguish themselves, Senator Elizabeth Warren has set herself apart with a series of sweeping proposals that would significantly remake the American economy."
That list of sweeping proposals varies widely, including such things as eliminating the Electoral College and taking on the opioid crisis. But Warren's massive jobs-related plans are the ones that have received the most visibility this past week. These plans clearly face some headwinds as far as public opinion is concerned. Two of the most important such obstacles are the relatively low level of urgency on the part of the American public concerning the jobs issue, and the public's continued wariness about increasing the power of the federal government. Warren has coupled some of her dramatic plans for creating new jobs with the goal of addressing climate change, but that issue in and of itself is controversial and by no means universally accepted as an existential concern.
All of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Warren, are essentially auditioning for the position of opposing Trump in the general election. Massive plans to increase jobs will ultimately have to be juxtaposed against views of what Trump has done and will do in the future.
Trump gets majority credit for his handling of the economy, higher than his approval on any other issue. And as noted, Americans are giving the economy quite positive marks at the moment. On the other hand, the public is not giving Trump a lot of credit for his signature tax cut plan, and his use of tariffs as a weapon to attempt to fix trade problems has significant public perception issues.
All in all, regardless of who ultimately wins the Democratic presidential nomination, Americans' views of bold new plans involving major step-ups in government intervention in the economy will be a key issue that percolates through the upcoming Democratic primary debates. Certainly, it will be one of the most significant issues in the general election next year.