Elected executives love to sell their tenures as recovery stories. In their dream script for hard fiscal times, supervisors, mayors, governors or presidents want to be able to say convincingly that they inherited economic troubles and exercised wise and bold leadership to turn the corner toward prosperity.
Their challengers will say the incumbents are steering us all down the wrong road.
The most immediate example is the White House. Seeking to craft the facts into the desired comeback tale, President Barack Obama points to 30 months of private-sector job growth -- while conceding a need for improvement. Mitt Romney and other Republicans counter that this recovery has proven weaker than in previous post-recession periods and cite mounting federal debt under Obama as a long-term threat.
The ambition to create a political rescue-and-recovery narrative seems just as acute among state and local leaders who aren't on the eve of an election.
Currently, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are challenging the U.S. Bureau of Labor's regional unemployment statistics as inaccurately high.
These elected leaders say they are seeing job improvements on their watch that don't reconcile with such bleak federal numbers. Hanging in the balance, as a political consequence, are Christie's "Jersey miracle" narrative, Bloomberg's rationale for changing term limits based on economic know-how and other regional recovery narratives.
Both of Long Island's county executives took over from incumbents of the other major party, which always makes it easier to describe the fiscal starting point as a mess. Democratic Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone's advisory panel projected a $530-million deficit, which allowed him within three months of taking office to declare that Suffolk "is facing the greatest fiscal crisis in its history" -- after what had been widely perceived as the spending-wary tenure of Democrat-turned-Republican Steve Levy.
Nassau's GOP Executive Ed Mangano, who took office in 2010, faces an election next year. While the county remains under a state financial board's control, Mangano will insist that his actions, including reduced personnel, new passenger-bus contracts and holding the line on taxes, served to rescue the county from conditions he inherited from two-term Democrat Thomas Suozzi.
His Democratic opponent will inevitably argue that on Mangano's watch Nassau became a fiscal basket case.
By tradition, policymakers facing deficits take on as little pain as possible. Rather, they base at least part of their hard-time budgets on the belief that the economic weather will soon improve. Borrowing and one-shot sales of county assets to sustain a certain level of spending are in a sense a bet that tax revenue will gush forth in the future to support that spending.
For now, all fiscal campaign debate on the state, federal and local levels can be summarized this way:
Incumbent: "Things were bad when I took over, but now they're improving, thanks to me and those who listened to me."
Opponent: "No, they are not. I will reverse the failed policies of the present."
The question as always is who will the voters choose to believe.