SACRAMENTO — Put aside Gov. Jerry Brown's political skills for a moment, along with his insider's knowledge of state government and his honeymoon with voters and lawmakers.
Those assets might not stand a chance against 12.4 percent unemployment.
Brown's entire governorship could ride on something that's almost entirely beyond his control: the direction of California's economy.
If the state remains on its current path of slow, almost invisible economic growth, Brown's term could be consumed by multibillion-dollar deficits and endless infighting over how to bridge the gap. He's already promised a "painful" first-year budget, the details of which will be released Monday.
"If the economy doesn't pick up, the deficit's going to come back like an opportunistic infection. If the economy does pick up, he'll look like a genius," said Jack McKenna, an expert on politics and government at Claremont McKenna College.
It's mostly out of Brown's hands. Experts say there's little a governor can do in the short term to rev up growth – even a governor handed the reins of the world's eighth-largest economy. The state is essentially hostage to global economic forces, fluctuations in the stock market and policy decisions made in Washington.
At the state level, "we don't control interest rates, we don't control trade policy. If you're talking about fighting the recession in 2011, we have very few tools," said Stephen Levy of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
The federal government can cut taxes and ramp up spending, as the Obama administration has, to try to expand the economy.
State governments aren't allowed to run deficits. In fact, the moves they make to stop the red ink – like cutting spending or raising taxes – will usually dampen economic growth.
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