Why the economy should be the last thing on your mind when you vote

The economy has dominated the 2012 campaign, and understandably so—we’re making our way out of the worst crisis any of us can remember, at a time when unemployment is higher and pain has been spread around more judiciously than at any point in almost all of our lives.

This happens every time there’s even a minor recession, say nothing of a catastrophe—the line “It’s the economy, stupid” helped Clinton swoop into office in ’92 against George H.W. after a recession in the early ’90s.

But the reality is that presidents’ ability to impact the economy is pretty limited to start with, and in this particular case the time when a president could have made a difference on the economy has passed. Things could have gotten worse if the stimulus bill of 2009 didn’t happen. The banking crisis could have gotten worse, and the recession could have snowballed into a serious depression. But it didn’t. The recession and the banking crisis are over, and the real economy, which always moves relatively slowly, is taking a while to catch up. But it is catching up.

According to economists surveyed in a new survey from Bloomberg, the wheels are now in motion for the economy to continue a modest recovery next year and start growing at 4% in 2014 and 2015 regardless of who wins the election tomorrow. Ben Bernanke, the Fed chief who largely dictates monetary policy, was nominated under Bush and will be around through 2014 regardless of who is president. Bernanke’s policies are designed to ensure the scenario outlined by Bloomberg plays out on schedule.

Not that it doesn’t matter at all who becomes president. There is one looming danger that legislators won’t agree on a new budget that weighs spending and taxes in order to reduce the federal deficit, and we’ll hit a default budget of draconian cuts known as the “fiscal cliff” that could throw a major speed-bump into the recovery next year.

The president will have to lead the compromise and make sure this doesn’t happen. But it will only happen if Congress idiotically and stubbornly refuses to reach a compromise. This could happen no matter who the president is, and probably won’t happen regardless of who he is, because it would be insane. It was the same story with the “debt ceiling” negotiations last year—despite all the huffing and puffing they eventually reached a deal because not doing so would be suicide.

All of which means that you should probably vote less with your wallet and more based on social issues. The die has been cast to a certain extent on the economy. But whoever wins tomorrow will probably appoint a Supreme Court Justice whose politics will help decide whether abortion remains legal, whether gay people are allowed to marry nationwide, and a whole bunch of other issues that will help shape our social fabric. The next president could decide whether funding continues for Planned Parenthood and FEMA, both of which Romney has said he’ll de-fund.

Ronald Reagan once asked: Are you better off than you were four years ago? But the economy doesn’t move quite that fast. The good news with tomorrow’s election is that four years from now you will probably be better off than you have been for the last four years. So while we’ve all been obsessing over the economy, it’s time to stop worrying as much about it and decide what we want the country to be like over the next four years—what rules we want to play by.

Happy voting.