The Obama administration is currently making the curious argument that cutting spending and restructuring the social safety net will make it easier for them to pivot to the issue of jobs.
Jonathan Bernstein finds some credence to this claim, but count me as a skeptic. For two years a stubbornly high unemployment rate has been the gravest problem facing this nation. The Obama administration shouldn’t need to pivot to the issue of creating jobs—it should have been the top priority for the administration from day one and every day since.
Yet the administration keeps arguing that it has done everything it could do on the jobs front. First, it argued that the stimulus would be sufficient; then it argued that there was no political will for a second stimulus once it became clear that the first wasn’t big enough; then it said that a jobs plan couldn’t pass the Republican Congress, and now it claims that it can’t do anything on jobs without first reducing the deficit, or that a deal in and of itself will boost the lagging economy.
All we seem to get are more and more excuses from the White House. “The truth is that creating jobs in a depressed economy is something government could and should be doing,” Paul Krugman wrote on Monday. “Yes, there are huge political obstacles to action—notably, the fact that the House is controlled by a party that benefits from the economy’s weakness. But political gridlock should not be conflated with economic reality. Our failure to create jobs is a choice, not a necessity—a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses.” If you don't believe there's anything the federal government could be doing on the jobs front, check out Robert Reich's six-point jobs plan, which he tweeted last week.
Not only is the White House not pushing as aggressively as they could to create jobs, they’re also embracing the right-wing talking points of their opponents, Krugman notes, such as the Hoover-esque claim that cutting spending will jumpstart an economic recovery, which worked out brilliantly for Hoover. Suddenly the president has become the anti-Keynes, which makes it hard to believe that he’ll start arguing for Keynsian policies to boost the economy following any debt deal.
I have a difficult time seeing how a grand bargain on the debt ceiling will make it easier for the administration to pass an infrastructure bank or other job-creation ideas through Congress, when Congressional Republicans' stated goal is to do everything in their power to bring down Obama in 2012. Nor will independent voters—the supposed key constituency of deficit reduction—suddenly warm to the Obama administration if the economy remains in the tank. It seems pretty obvious that the 2012 election will be determined by the magnitude of the unemployment rate and growth, or lack thereof, in real disposable personal income, not the size of the deficit. I’m not exactly sure why Obama seems to believe otherwise.
A number of pundits are arguing this week that the president is simply following the same playbook that Bill Clinton used to win re-election in 1996. But there are a number of problems with the Clinton parallels, as I detailed in a Nation article, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0,” earlier this year.
Number one: Clinton had the benefit of a rapidly growing economy. Obama does not.
Number two: Clinton won the battle of public opinion by resisting sharp Republicans cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Obama, on the other hand, has proposed raising the enrollment age of Medicare, from 65 to 67, and major reductions in Medicare spending.
Number three: Clinton had Newt Gingrich as a foil. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, though beholden to the Tea Party, are more formidable foes for Obama.
We need to raise the debt ceiling. Only crackpot Tea Partiers and hopefuls for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination argue otherwise. But if the Obama administration and leaders in both parties had tackled the jobs crisis with the same urgency that they’ve shown in debt ceiling negotiations, there would have been no need to talk of one day pivoting to jobs.
--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.