1. Opinion

March arrives with hopeful signs for the economy

Published Mar. 1, 2012

The turning of the calendar to March always brings a sense of renewal and new possibilities. That optimism is now fueled by more than the gorgeous weather, baseball spring training and this weekend's Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in downtown Tampa. The economy is far from fully blooming again, but there are several promising sprouts.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 13,000 this week for the first time since May 2008, months before the depths of the economic collapse. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits is also the lowest it's been in four years. And retailers from Target to Macy's to the Gap report better than expected sales gains for February.

The brightest signs of rebirth may be in the auto industry. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all reported gains in U.S. sales for February. By any measure, the federal bailouts of Chrysler and GM started by President George W. Bush in December 2008 and continued by President Barack Obama were successful. The companies are profitable again, thousands of jobs were saved and cars are selling. Yet Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney still criticizes the government financing. No wonder he barely won the Michigan primary this week and has failed to nail down the nomination against far less attractive opponents.

The encouraging economic signs are shifting the dynamics of the presidential campaign. Romney and the other Republicans have been all gloom and doom, blaming Obama for the economic meltdown he inherited. Obama's argument has been that without the economic stimulus package and his other initiatives, the collapse would have been worse. Now the president is proclaiming "America is back'' and that his efforts have succeeded. No longer able to argue the economy is getting worse, the Republicans can only claim it would be even better if Obama were not in charge. That's a less compelling argument.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott faces a similar conundrum. First he took credit for the state's modest recovery as the Republican presidential candidates cast the state as an economic disaster during the state's primary. Now the Republican governor and the Democratic president are each claiming their divergent policies have helped the state create jobs. They both can't be right. The federal stimulus certainly saved or created more jobs in Florida than Scott's tax cuts, trashing of growth management and refusal to embrace health care reform.

To be sure, the economy remains far from vibrant. Florida's unemployment rate remains higher than the nation's, the housing market is still roiled by low prices and foreclosures, and rising gas prices threaten the recovery.

Yet there's reason for hope on this first weekend in March. Baseball's back and the art festival is on. The economy appears headed in the right direction, the political conversation is evolving — and neither Congress nor the Legislature can rain on that.

Tim Nickens is the Times' editor of editorials.


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