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Why Hasn’t the Euro Debt Crisis Been a More Prominent Campaign Topic?

October 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Europe's economy falters, U.S. exports have declined and the fear of a Eurozone breakup has cast a shadow over Wall Street. Judy Woodruff talks to Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist and James Surowiecki of The New Yorker about how Romney and Obama should address Europe's debt crisis in their campaigns.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And that brings us to Europe’s debt crisis.

That is one of the little-mentioned topics in this year’s campaign and the subject of tonight’s segment on Missing Issues.

Throughout the campaign, President Obama and Mitt Romney have debated extensively on the direction of the U.S. economy.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Forty-three months with unemployment above 8 percent, 23 million Americans struggling to find a good job right now.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thirty-one consecutive months of job growth, 5.2 million new jobs created.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there’s been little discussion about a potential outside threat to the nation’s recovery: Europe’s struggle with its debt crisis.

Yesterday, the 17 countries using the euro saw their overall debt rise to 90 percent of their total economic output, the highest level since the euro’s creation in 1999. Moreover, at least nine member countries have slid into recession.

That’s had an effect on American companies operating overseas. This week, automaker Ford announced it’s closing a major plant in Belgium and two facilities in Britain, after losing more than $1.5 billion. President Obama has worked behind the scenes and publicly to press for more aggressive action by his European counterparts, warning against deeper spending cuts.

In May, he hosted world leaders at Camp David for the G8 Summit, with Europe at the top of the agenda.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Put simply, if a company is forced to cut back in Paris or Madrid, that might mean less business for manufacturers in Pittsburgh or Milwaukee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the campaign trail, however, both candidates have chosen only to highlight the contrast when the subject comes up. In June, during a speech in Ohio on the economy, President Obama said America took a different path than Europe.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Today, the economies of many European countries still aren’t growing, and their unemployment rate averages around 11 percent.

But here in the United States, Americans showed their grit and showed their determination. We acted fast. Our economy started growing again six months after I took office, and it has continued to grow for the last three years.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitt Romney has charged the U.S. could eventually face similar borrowing problems as some European countries because of the president’s policies, something he’s raised in all three presidential debates.

MITT ROMNEY: Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We’re now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don’t want to go down the path to Spain. If the president were reelected, we’d go to almost $20 trillion of national debt. This puts us on a road to Greece.

We can’t expect entrepreneurs and businesses large and small to take their life savings or their companies’ money and invest in America if they think we’re headed to the road to Greece. And that’s where we’re going right now unless we finally get off this spending and borrowing binge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While panic over the fate of the Eurozone has calmed of late, big troubles remain. In Greece, austerity measures continue to drive political unrest and protests among residents and workers, while Spain and other nations wrestle with chronic unemployment, especially among young people.

A closer look now at the economic risks from Europe to our economy and why the presidential candidates are avoiding some of the blunt talk about it.

This time, we turn to two writers who follow these issues closely. Zanny Minton Beddoes is the economics editor for “The Economist” magazine. She formerly worked as an economist at the International Monetary Fund. And James Surowiecki writes the financial page for “The New Yorker” magazine, a regular column on business and finance.

And we thank you both for being with us.

So, we just reported that while the panic has receded in Europe, it still presents a threat. It’s still big.

Zanny Minton Beddoes, how big a threat, how big a problem does Europe still have?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES, “The Economist”: Europe still has a very big problem.

It has a very big, chronic problem. But I think they have moved away from an acute phase. Earlier this summer, they had another very acute phase. There was a real risk that the Eurozone would fracture. That’s I think a risk that has receded quite dramatically in the past couple of months.

And so it’s now back in the chronic stage again. And the chronic stage is still a big — does a lot of damage to the world economy, and I think it’s still the biggest uncertainty hanging over the world economy. But it’s less likely to cause a kind of financial maelstrom for the world economy than it was a few months ago. And I think that is one reason why it’s not so high on the agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Surowiecki, is it now in the chronic phase, so not so urgent?

JAMES SUROWIECKI, “The New Yorker”: Well, I think it’s still urgent, certainly for the European themselves.

If you live in Spain or you live in Greece or maybe now increasingly in Italy, on a day-to-day level, this is having a really profound effect on people’s lives.

But I think Zanny is right that what happened really was that European Central Bank in a lot of ways stepped up and did what I think a lot of us had been arguing it should and really kind of calmed some of people’s real fears about some of these countries defaulting.

And the ECB basically said it would backstop the debt of a lot of these — of a number of these countries, as long as they sort of carried out the kind of disciplined spending and budget-cutting that the ECB wanted, which had its own problems. But that has I think reduced the sense of panic that really pervaded Europe for much of the summer.

And, as you know, for the past few years, every so often, all of a sudden panic would just kind of seize the markets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, staying with you, how much of a threat then does that pose for the U.S.?

JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, I think the real threat is not so much at the moment the debt crisis, per se, in Europe, but simply the fact that Europe’s economy as a whole is really significantly weak.

And, as you mentioned in the segment, I think nine European countries are now in recession. And even those countries that are not in recession are actually growing very slowly. Germany is perhaps an exception there, as are the Scandinavian countries.

But the point is that, in terms of them as a market for U.S. goods, which I guess President Obama alluded to in one of those clips you had, Europe is just much weaker than it has been in the past. And in terms of exports from the U.S., it really is constituting a drag on the U.S. economy.

The question going forward — and this is kind of again what Zanny was getting at — is whether or not it remains a source of profound uncertainty, because I think that’s also been one of the problems that Europe has caused in the United States. It actually has just made people worried about what they should do in terms of the future. And Europe continues I think to prey on people’s minds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Zanny Beddoes, how do you see it? Do you agree with that? Do you see — how do you see the risks?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Yes, I absolutely agree with James.

 

I think that there are two ways in which what’s going on in Europe affects the U.S. One is, if the European economies are in recession or even if they’re stagnant, that has a knock-on effect to U.S. exports. There’s an incredibly close investment relationship. It’s a very, very close and important trading relationship.

So, if you have a Europe that is stagnating for the next five, 10 years, that is a big drag on the U.S. economy. But I think the more dramatic impact would be if there was some kind of financial catastrophe in Europe, some breakup of the euro. And it was the fear of that that on and off over the past couple of years has hung over Wall Street, has preyed on — over an increased uncertainty and has been there like a kind of big shadow over the world economy.

And I think what’s happened in the past couple of months is that that has receded. And the big question is, has it receded temporarily or has it permanently receded? And that’s — the whole narrative of this European crisis has been that usually it’s the European Central Bank does something that calms nerves, and then a few months later, there’s another big blowup and people get very worried again.

I actually think that this time is different, in the sense that I think there has been a sort of profound shift within certain parts of Europe, particularly within Germany. But I think — so I think for the next year or so, until the German election next year, I think the odds are that we will maintain some form of calm.

But I think the real problem is that no one knows where Europe is exactly going to end up in five years. And I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be a tough road to get there. But if you don’t exactly know where you’re going, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty still out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Jim Surowiecki, given what we heard, the president was defending his approach to this — and we heard Governor Romney taking shots at the president, saying the U.S. is headed down the same — in the same direction as Europe — why do you think we’re not seeing a fuller, more robust discussion about this on the campaign trail?

JAMES SUROWIECKI: I think there are a couple reasons.

I mean, the most obvious reason is that simply that frankly there’s just not much that the president can do about what Europe is going to do. So certainly the Obama administration has tried to exert various forms of moral suasion. Tim Geithner has certainly been pushing European policy-makers to try to actually deal with the crisis.

But, in reality, that’s about all they can do. And so that, I think, is probably the biggest reason. And the second reason is I think that the complexity of the euro crisis actually plays itself out in a variety of ways. So you can actually spin the story in many different ways.

And I don’t think it lends itself to a clear narrative. Mitt Romney wants to reduce it to too much government spending in Spain or Greece. The Spain case is very odd, because Spain got into trouble not because of too much government spending, but because of a real estate bubble that burst.

And in Obama’s case, he wants to say, well, they went the austerity route and we didn’t and things turned out well. But it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a clear political message, and I think that’s probably another part of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zanny Beddoes, you started to touch on this in your first answer, but do you think that’s the reason — those are the reasons that we’re not hearing more from the candidates about this?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Yes, I think they’re absolutely the reasons.

I think it’s complicated, it’s not easy to — for Governor Romney to kind of tar the president with having messed up somehow. And I think actually the sort of bigger picture is that that’s probably no bad thing that it’s not that high on the agenda here, because the truth is that there’s really not much that the U.S. can do.

This is a European problem. It’s a European issue. The Europeans have to figure out where they want to go. And actually, in some sense, too much coming from the U.S. certainly in any sort of obvious way is counterproductive, because there is, rightly or wrongly, a view in Europe that who is the U.S. to tell the Europeans what to do, when there’s such a huge debt and deficit problem here?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, finally, to both of you, I know it’s a big subject, but the other big players in the international economy, China, Latin America, Jim Surowiecki, why aren’t we hearing more about those places?

JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, you know, China, we are obviously hearing a lot about, but mainly in the form of kind of China-bashing.

And the reasons for that are kind of clear. It’s that China is the — a clear villain. At least, they sort of play that role. I think the really interesting question about China is, China’s economy has really slowed significantly. I mean, it’s still growing much faster than most of the rest of the world, but it’s slowed significantly.

And that really does have a profound impact on the U.S. as well in terms of the future of exports and things like that. But it’s easier to talk about currency manipulation or just talk about tariffs and tires than it is to actually talk about the ways in which our two economies are really profoundly interconnected.

So I think, again, that has to do partly with this question of trying to keep — the candidates want to keep things simple, rather than complex.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Zanny Beddoes, just in a couple of sentences, how do you see that as an issue or not on the campaign trail?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Well, I agree with James.

I think the problem is that China is being vilified. It’s easy for domestic purposes to vilify China. I think that’s actually a pretty dangerous thing to do. I think it’s dangerous because at the same time right now, there is a leadership transition of a different sort going on in China.

And I think that potentially there’s quite a lot of uncertainty about how all that plays out. In terms of the economy overall, how — slower growth in the emerging world I think is here to stay. And that is going to have an impact on an economy here which we’re hoping to turn into an economy focused more on exports to faster-growing economies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zanny Minton Beddoes of “The Economist,” James Surowiecki of “The New Yorker,” we thank you both.

And we will examine other Missing Issues in the coming days.