by Lowman S. Henry | April 18, 2008

Senator Barack Obama says we Pennsylvanians are “bitter,” but former President Bill Clinton says it is just that our economy is bad.

I wonder if either one of them has talked with Governor Ed Rendell? For years the governor has been touting the “success” of his “economic development” policies claiming the commonwealth has once again joined the ranks of those states whose economies are actually growing and prospering. In Rendell-land, the sky is rosy because he has taxed and spent us into prosperity.

If all is well, why then did Barack Obama spend a couple of days touring the state in a bus and conclude that Pennsylvanians are in a mood lower than one of his gutter balls at that bowling alley in Altoona? Why are the national newscasts painting Penn’s woods as worse off than Ohio, which they portray as having an economy worse than some third world county?

Perhaps it is because Senator Obama and President Clinton are right, and Ed Rendell is wrong. The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research reported results of its semi-annual Keystone Business Climate Survey a couple of weeks ago. Fifty-nine percent of the business owners polled said the state’s economy has gotten worse over the past six months. That is the most pessimistic assessment rendered by the business community in the 14 year history of the survey. Further, the poll found by a two-to-one margin they expect the economy to get even worse rather than better over the coming six months.

In short order the national candidates have tapped into the truth. While Senator Obama went too far in characterizing those in small towns as being “bitter” over their economic circumstances, he most certainly did pick up on the concern and uncertainty that pervades every corner of the state.

The problems with the national economy are partly to blame. But the reality is that Pennsylvania missed out on many of the benefits of the economic upswing that preceded the current softening of the economy. After recovering from the economic shockwaves of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks most states in the nation prospered. Pennsylvania’s economic performance remained lackluster.

This stagnation is a direct result of a wide range of state level policies that have resulted in a business climate that does not foster the retention and creation of businesses and the resultant job opportunities. Add to this a wave of public outrage triggered by a middle-of-the-night legislative pay raise and the political climate in the state has also been poisoned.

Governor Ed Rendell has been selling Pennsylvanians a bill of goods about the state’s economy for years. But where it has been in his political best interests to portray us as making progress, it suits the national candidates better to highlight our economic deficiencies. This puts Rendell in an awkward position. How difficult it must be to stand next to Hillary Clinton while she appeals to the economic downtrodden when you are the man whose policies are largely responsible for their plight?

Some good might ultimately come from all of this. First, it will be more difficult for Rendell to spin the state’s economic numbers when you can cite the Presidential candidates of his own party saying otherwise. Perhaps then this will lead to an admission that Rendell’s tax-borrow-spend approach to economic development is a failure and we can embark on a new, more successful course.

It is fair for Senators Clinton and McCain to be critical of Barack Obama’s comments about the “bitter” residents of small towns. The balance of that statement, suggesting Pennsylvanians are holding onto God and guns out of economic frustration merits the derision that has come his way. Inarticulate though he may have been Senator Obama is correct that small town Pennsylvania, in fact all of the state, is suffering economically.

Now that the debate is underway, the question becomes what must be done to reverse our declining economic fortunes. The answers lie at both the federal and the state levels. As this election year progresses, Pennsylvanians need to hold candidates for offices from President on down responsible for the failed policies that have gotten us into this mess, and for charting a new course that will lead us back into prosperity.