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Americans want security for 2012

By Julian E. Zelizer, CNN Contributor
  • Julian Zelizer: Economic security is going to be defining theme of 2012 race
  • Americans want to know jobs are safe and available, he says
  • Zelizer: Neither party has done a good job developing policies for economic security
  • He says FDR provided security to U.S., while Ford and Carter didn't

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

(CNN) -- Just as the 2004 presidential election was all about the concept of security, the same term will shape the campaigns of 2012.

But this time around, the issue is not national security and the threat of terrorists but the search for security amid the ongoing struggles that Americans have faced with the economy.

High unemployment, laggard economic growth and a turbulent stock market have left many middle class Americans terrified about what comes next. Almost three-quarters of Americans, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, said that the country is moving in the wrong direction.

During the 2012 election, voters will be looking for a candidate who can restore some sense of economic security: a candidate who can provide them with confidence that their jobs won't disappear (and that new jobs will emerge for those without them) and that their income will remain steady.

Voters want to know that they will be able to pay their next mortgage payment and, if needed, get themselves out of debt. Voters want to know that, even with the normal fluctuations in the stock market, they can have some confidence that the wild swings that the nation has seen in September 2008 and August 2011 won't happen again in the near future.

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Presidents who fail to provide a sense of security in hard economic times suffer at the polls.
--Julian Zelizer

When handled effectively, the theme of security has been powerful on the campaign trail in difficult economic times. Nobody understood this more than President Franklin Roosevelt, who in the 1930s and 1940s made security the defining message of his presidency. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy showed how Roosevelt's rhetoric and policies revolved around giving Americans a modicum of freedom from their economic fears (and later national security fears).

Voters knew he was a president who was working to solve the problems they faced. As Roosevelt had said in May of 1932, "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

Roosevelt continually assured Americans that the federal government would restore confidence in the fundamentals of the economy. Roosevelt was no radical. In fact, he aimed to restore the nation's sense of security in the market economy, which he thought was necessary to ward off radical alternatives, by providing insurance for their bank deposits, public jobs to alleviate unemployment, economic assistance for the elderly and more.

Although the ultimate economic revitalization would not take place until World War II, Roosevelt's early presidency did produce big gains, as University of California economist Christina Romer, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, wrote in The New York Times: "From 1933 to 1937, the real gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of almost 10 percent, and unemployment fell from 25 percent of 14. To put that in perspective, G.D.P. growth has averaged just 2.5 percent in the current recovery, and unemployment has barely budged."

FDR's notion was that all risk was not acceptable -- even in a free market economy. Even during the war, Roosevelt conveyed this message. Calling for an Economic Bill of Rights in 1944, Roosevelt proclaimed: "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not free men.' People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

Presidents who fail to provide a sense of security in hard economic times suffer at the polls. This was the case in the second half of the 1970s when Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter struggled to create a sense of confidence among voters that the nation could to get out of its economic malaise. Both presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, seemed overwhelmed by the triple whammy of unemployment, inflation and oil shortages.

When Carter delivered his famous "malaise" speech in July 1979, his focus on the problems within American society seemed to confirm that he was a leader who could not ensure that the future would be better for Americans.

Which party can make the case effectively in 2012? Both have been struggling. For all of his legislative accomplishments, such as health care, the economic stimulus and financial regulation, Obama's biggest vulnerability has been an inability to significantly lower the unemployment rate.

After the events of August, he now must struggle to contain the wild fluctuations of the stock market and growing fears about the effect of the deficit on the stability of the nation. Even if the recession might have been worse without Obama's stimulus, the overall economic security record of the administration has not been good.

Republicans have not done much better. Upon announcing his candidacy, Texas Gov. Rick Perry made clear that economics would be his focus. "One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a full-time job," he said, "that is not a recovery. That is an economic disaster." But his speech did not offer much in terms of how he what his solution would be. Although he boasted of the employment record of Texas, the fact that the state leads the nation in minimum wage jobs should be troubling to all Americans, red and blue.

Republicans have not provided much of a vision of how they would restore economic security for the middle class. They have focused on the traditional conservative magic bullet solutions of deficit reduction and government spending cuts -- without tax increases -- neither of which would have any major impact on the current unemployment rates or address the underlying challenges that the economy has been facing for over a decade.

Today's candidates from both parties are closer to their predecessors in the 1970s than the 1930s. Political leaders are having trouble providing guidance and hope as a devastating economy has turned life into a constant struggle for many Americans. In 2012, the nation will have a chance to hear what each party plans to do to turn things around. The candidate who can offer a more compelling case is likely to end up in the White House.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.